By Gift Briton

As the world marks Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) Day, celebrated annually on January 30th to raise awareness and garner support to end these diseases, experts offer insights on how countries can unite and act to eliminate them.

These diseases are responsible for the suffering of approximately 1.62 billion people in the world’s most vulnerable communities with Africa accounting for 40% of the global burden, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Globally, 50 countries have eliminated at least one NTD, 21 of which are African countries. However, systemic barriers and structural inequalities impedes efforts in achieving the 2030 elimination goal.

Simon Bolo, Head of Leishmaniasis Access at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) noted that expanding treatment access to patients is crucial in achieving elimination, however, getting treatment and drugs on time to the people who need them remains a key challenge. This is because most drugs for the treatment of NTDs have single manufacturers making the procurement and supply chain laborious, resulting in frequent stock out of drugs.

Additionally, Bolo urged countries and stakeholders to double down their efforts toward expanding access and availability of treatment to patients, increasing domestic funding, creating awareness, and leveraging partnerships.

“As DNDi, we have been developing treatments for neglected diseases. But at some point, we realized that developing treatment alone was not enough because we needed to get them to the patients. We then embarked on a programme aiming to accelerate treatment and diagnostics for patients. In the programme, we are trying to eliminate the obstacles that make it difficult for patients to access drugs and treatment on time. DNDI has also tried to build partnerships because we realize that working together is very crucial in eliminating the diseases,” Bolo said during a webinar discussion dubbed: Bridging gaps in the Treatment of Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Magriet Boer, NTD Advisor at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) also added: “Neglected diseases are also neglected in terms of funding. We need to step up in funding and research and development to produce new molecules and new diagnostic tests available to decentralize treatments and prevent infections.”

Turning to the contribution of research and development in the treatment and elimination of NTDs, Professor Samuel Kariuki, Director DNDi Eastern Africa, called on countries to make sure that research and development is well funded to boost the production of new treatments for NTDs.

“No single organization can develop new treatments and drugs for NTDs because there are no incentives for pharmaceutical companies to develop new products for these diseases. So, we must go out of our way to make sure that new treatments that are less toxic, more effective, and easier to deliver are available. Research and development must be strengthened through partnerships and country ownership of the NTDs programmes,” Prof. Kariuki said.

Prof. Kariuki further stressed that countries should stop overreliance on donor funding and instead take country ownership of the NTDs programs and invest in research and development so that NTDs can be integrated into government programs.

“Most governments are currently rolling out universal health coverage. We therefore urged them to include NTDs as part and parcel of universal health coverage so that as they roll out and provide funding for other diseases, NTDs are not forgotten,” he said.

Prof. Kariuki added that: “NTDs are natural diseases of poverty and neglect. If we elevate the socioeconomic status of communities and raise awareness, they become empowered and have improved living standards. We need to move these communities from poverty to enhanced socioeconomic status, including improved sanitation, improved vector controls, and improved nutrition. So, we need very active interventions such as socio-economic empowerment, awareness and education so that they can become aware of their surroundings and what affects them and how they can move out of that.”