By and large, neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are not killer diseases. Instead, over years and decades, they sap people’s strength, destroy their quality of life and eat away their savings. For many people, who suffer from them, chronic fatigue, bad vision and persistent discomfort seem to be routine parts of life.
Luckily, treating and preventing many NTDs is medically simple, and the majority of the drugs needed to do so are generously donated by pharmaceutical companies. About 1.5 billion treatments were donated globally in 2015 alone. But delivering those drugs is harder than it sounds. We need better information on where people are infected or at risk, infrastructure to distribute medicine to remote areas and a system to track progress.
An effort of such scale demands substantial funding and technical capacity, posing a major challenge for many African countries. Designing effective programmes is just half the battle, effective collaboration and sustainable funding for these programmes are crucial ingredients for success.
Over the past few years, we have seen increased momentum in the fight against these debilitating diseases. In 2012, a coalition of representatives from various sectors endorsed the London Declaration on NTDs, an ambitious plan to control, eliminate or eradicate 10 NTDs. In 2014, two dozen African countries pledged to strengthen their commitment to NTDs under the Addis Ababa Commitment on NTDs. And in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) made clear that tackling NTDs was essential to helping communities break free of poverty.
That is why the World Health Organisation, together with a coalition of multinational organisations, is launching the Expanded Special Project for Elimination of NTDs or Espen. Espen has a broader mandate than its predecessor, the African Programme for Onchocerciasis (Apoc), which closed in December 2015 focused on one disease. Espen focuses on five and these are onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminths and trachoma. They are controllable and eliminated through mass drug administration.
To succeed in helping these millions of people, the fight against NTDs must be led by affected countries themselves. Much of that work is already taking place through national NTD programmes in partnership with public and private organisations. To help make these programmes effective and sustainable, Espen will support countries each step of the way. It will support them as they map the burden of these diseases, deliver treatments accurately and efficiently, monitor progress and secure certification when they successfully eliminate diseases from within their borders.
Espen will support countries to strengthen their strategic leadership role in convening and coordinating partners support, a must-have for a successful delivery of interventions and progress towards elimination. It will create an online portal so countries can access and share information and help the range of organisations working on NTDs to coordinate with one another and streamline their efforts. It will also advise governments on how to raise money for NTD efforts, and the best targets for spending it. This project is building on an existing global and pan-African movement to combat NTDs.