New WHO Roadmap Sets Ambitious Targets To Reduce By 90% Neglected Tropical Disease Burden Within Decade
Victoire Tomegah Dogbé, Prime Minister of Togo

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Thursday released a new road map for reducing by 90% illnesses related to neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) by the year 2030. The plan proposes ambitious targets and a more integrated and holistic approach to tackle 20 diseases which affect more than a billion people worldwide, mainly poor, and which thrive in areas where access to quality health services, clean water and sanitation is scarce.

The 2030 global targets of the roadmap would firstly reduce by 90% the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs, to enable at least 100 countries to have eliminated at least one NTD, and to eradicate dracunculiasis and Yaws on a global scale. The roadmap also aims to reduce by 75% disability adjusted life years – e.g. healthy life-years lost – as a result of NTDs. 

Speaking at the virtual launch event for the road map, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said the plan was developed through an extensive consultative process and was approved in November 2020 by the World Health Assembly – as well as being shared with the Executive Board again last week. The WHO DG noted that it sets global targets and milestones for prevalence control, elimination and eradication of 20 NTDs in a more integrated manner. 

“By shifting away from single business programmes to an integrated approach, it aims to improve coordination and collaboration,” Dr Tedros said. 

The road map also aims to see a reduction by more than 75% in the number of deaths from vector-borne NTDs such as dengue, leishmaniasis and others, promote full access to basic water supply, sanitation and hygiene in areas endemic for NTDs and achieve greater improvement in collecting and reporting NTD data disaggregated by gender, including tracking 10 cross-cutting and disease specific targets.

Tedros said the roadmap also promotes cross sectoral action in areas such as health, education, nutrition and One Health. 

“The roadmap also addresses stigma, discrimination and mental health conditions which are often neglected consequences of disability,” he said. 

While noting that tackling NTDs is a challenge for countries, Tedros said it also presents an opportunity to address the health inequalities that undermine economic and development progress. In the end, the roadmap is only a guide, he emphasized. 

“We can only reach the destination with country ownership. That means, national and local governments, working in partnership with communities and youth. Accountability is key. By working together, we can prevent suffering and save lives. This roadmap shows us the way,” Tedros concluded.

According to the WHO, NTDs that affect over 1 billion people globally have imapcts well beyond health – leaving lasting social and economic consequences for individuals and societies: “They prevent children from going to school and adults from going to work, trapping communities in cycles of poverty and inequity. People affected by disabilities and impairments caused by NTDs often experience stigma within their communities, hindering their access to needed care and leading to social isolation,” stated WHO in a press release.

By integrating and mainstreaming approaches and actions within national health systems, and across sectors, the roadmap sets out a more innovative approach to disease control programmes that once were confined to distinct silos, health experts say.

“At its core, this road map aims to put people first. It involves working across sectors in delivering programmes for all the 20 NTDs and promoting equity and country ownership,” said Dr Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, Director, WHO Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “To do so programmes have to be sustainable with measurable outcomes, backed by adequate domestic financing.”

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Partners align with the new roadmap

Besides lifelong disability, NTDs also lead to stigma inequality and discrimination with huge mental health implications, said Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, in an address at the launch. 

While increasing access to diagnosis and treatment is essential, partnerships wll be key to advancing cross sectoral interventions, she added:  

“The new NTDs roadmap is innovative and offers a powerful contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals, especially universal health coverage, it also addresses vulnerability and by doing so, it promotes inequality. But these ambitious targets cannot be achieved unless we unite and act together with ambition.”

Even though COVID-19 continues to attract more attention in global health than other issues, West African countries have also found creative ways to successfully tackle COVID-19 and NTDs at the same time, providing examples of a way forward, said Victoire Tomegah Dogbé, Prime Minister of Togo. 

“Togo has seen tremendous success in the past few years with the elimination of filariasis and other diseases. Thanks to the technical and financial assistance of our partners, we have been able to help thousands of our citizens to overcome these diseases that have impacted their lives every day. Successes give us more confidence in the future and allow us to remain optimistic as we are confronted with the current pandemic, and we try to conduct our actions despite it,” the Prime Minister said.

NTDs are anchored in poverty
Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population, World Bank

Speaking on a panel at the launch of the roadmap, Muhammad Ali Pate, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population (HNP) at the World Bank said NTDs are anchored in poverty and lock people into a cycle of ill health, poor education and lack of opportunities. 

Positioning NTDs as a key threat for building a country’s human capital and for progressing towards personal health coverage, can help place NTDs at the centre of political plans, along with ending extreme poverty and creating a more inclusive society. 

“NTDs have long term consequences that can cause visual, and physical impairments, leading to disabilities that place an overwhelming financial burden on households, and the loss of productivity, which becomes a burden on national economies. This is an impact, due to the costs of seeking health care, which not only include out-of-pocket spending on consultations, laboratory and medicines, but also transportation costs and informal payments to providers,” Pate said.

Much of the World Bank’s work has been focused on ensuring equity of access to essential health services, building robust health systems and expanding financial protection for the poorest people as the most cost effective strategies. 

“These cannot be any more important than with regards to neglected tropical diseases. NTDs affect the most vulnerable and marginalized and poorest people in our societies. Since 2015, our efforts are concentrated in supporting countries to increase sustainable domestic financing to strengthen their primary health care systems,” Pate added. 

Long road ahead

In the past decade, substantial gains have been made, resulting in 600 million fewer people at risk of NTDs than a decade ago and with 42 countries eliminating at least one NTD, and some countries defeating multiple NTDs. Furthermore, global programmes treated more than 1 billion people annually for 5 consecutive years between 2015 – 2019.

But the WHO warned that significant challenges remain, including climate change, conflict, emerging zoonotic and environmental health threats, as well as continued inequalities in access to healthcare services, adequate housing, safe water and improved sanitation. 

“There are also major gaps in current intervention packages of diagnostics, treatment and service delivery models,” WHO stated.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.