7 Neglected Tropical Diseases and How We Can Put an End to Them

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Hookworm, trachoma, elephantiasis, snail fever, roundworm, river blindness, and whip worm can be treated for only 50 cents a year.

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It's every parent's nightmare: not being able to help when their child is sick. In the U.S. and other wealthy countries, chickenpox, strep throat, and flu usually top the list of childhood illnesses that we most dread. But in developing countries, the most pervasive diseases that poor parents face are largely unknown to those living in developed economies.

Hookworm, trachoma, elephantiasis, roundworm, whip worm, snail fever, and river blindness are seven parasitic and bacterial infections that together have a higher health burden on the world's poor than malaria and tuberculosis. They are called Neglected Tropical Diseases -- or NTDs -- and they infect nearly one in six people worldwide, including half a billion children.

For less than the cost of a candy bar we can provide one person with the pills to treat and protect against all major NTDs for a year.

Kids get these diseases by doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing: playing in rivers, helping with laundry, or drinking water. NTDs are a major reason why families in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia cannot escape poverty, since they keep children from going to school and parents from working. They drive home the simple truth that basic health builds the foundation for poor communities to prosper.

Consider the story of Georgette, a woman we met in Rutoke, a village in Burundi. Not long ago, her five children were ill with intestinal worms, parasites that fed on the insides of their bodies and caused swollen bellies, nausea, and weakness. Georgette was unable to help her children as they became so sick that they frequently vomited worms.

But Georgette and her children were able to take advantage of a mass drug administration (MDA) program in their community. Her children received a simple package of pills that helped them feel better, regain their strength, and return to school.

We can easily provide this solution to millions of families like Georgette's. For less than the cost of a candy bar -- about 50 cents -- we can provide one person with the pills to treat and protect them against all seven major NTDs for an entire year. Most people don't know about these devastating diseases, but they know even less about the easy, cost-effective solutions available to treat and eliminate them.

That's why this year The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases launched a brand new campaign called END7. Working with partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, World Health Organization (WHO), and various drug companies, among others, END7 is the first international advocacy campaign that aims to raise awareness of the seven most common NTDs and the resources necessary to eliminate them.

The campaign relies heavily on social media, not only to educate the general public about these diseases, but also to provide a two-way platform for engagement, transforming our audience from followers to a constituency that is also part of the solution.

Bringing this program to the attention of the public is crucial because even minor support will give END7 the power to change the NTD landscape in years, not decades. Since pharmaceutical companies have agreed to donate the medicine, the cost of controlling these diseases is limited to distributing the pills and setting up treatment programs that communities can run themselves. Furthermore, NTD treatment has been shown to reduce the transmission of other infections like HIV/AIDS, making it a true investment in the future of impoverished communities.

Down the road, we hope to use the growing support for NTD treatment and prevention to attract more attention from global political and philanthropic leaders, as well as national governments in endemic countries. Encouraging them to make modest commitments will help us end the transmission cycles of NTDs in places like Rutoke.

Georgette, who now works as a community health worker, hopes she will soon be able to expand access to the NTD treatments to adults in her village in addition to the children. "I look forward to a better Burundi, where there is more progress in the future due to this free drug distribution program," she says. "The change is real and positive in our community."

We have a unique opportunity to meet the World Health Organization's 2020 targets for NTD control and elimination. If we succeed, it would represent one of the most cost-effective means toward lifting a billion people out of poverty and preventing needless suffering among future generations. There is much work to be done, but we can see the end.

Image: Hookworm/Wikimedia Commons.

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Neeraj Mistry is the managing director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, a Sabin Vaccine Institute initiative. A public health physician, Mistry was a founding member of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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