Investment in Quality Data is Essential to Fight Neglected Tropical Diseases in Africa

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) pose a threat to more than 1.5 billion people worldwide,  making them one of the biggest health problems in the developing world. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, these diseases are found “at the end of the road” in the most rural and poor communities where an estimated 600 million people are at risk of contracting one or more NTDs. 

These diseases have detrimental effects on school attendance and child development. They cause irreversible damage and stigmatizing disability with reduced quality of life and hence reduced productivity. They imprison afflicted communities in a vicious cycle of poverty and disease, which creates a significant barrier to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

An estimated 90% of the NTD burden in Africa can be controlled or eliminated through mass drug administration of preventive chemotherapy to treat five key NTDs, onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminthiasis, and trachoma . 

This ambitious goal is feasible thanks to strong public-private partnerships, including the commitment and generosity of several pharmaceutical companies to provide free drugs, and the volunteers and teachers from endemic communities who distribute the drugs to millions – often without remuneration. 

Improved productivity

A study published in PLOS NTDs estimated that eliminating these five NTDs with preventive chemotherapy would increase productivity by $11 billion annually on a global scale. Increased investment in NTD control and elimination is imperative to improve development, end suffering for millions, and achieve the SDGs.

The Mectizan Donation Program (MDP), is the longest-running pharmaco-philanthropy initiative established in 1987 by the pharmaceutical company MSD (known as Merck and Co. Inc in the USA and Canada) to facilitate access to its drug, Mectizan (ivermectin), for the elimination of river blindness. 

In 1998, MSD joined forces with GSK through their donation of albendazole to be co-administered with Mectizan to eliminate lymphatic filariasis. 

Today, the Mectizan Donation Program is no longer alone. Many other initiatives have since been created to facilitate access to NTD medications. MDP is a proud partner of the Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN), a special program of World Health Organization (WHO) AFRO with the mission to accelerate elimination of the five PCT NTDs in Africa.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in disastrous socio-economic consequences worldwide. As resources become scarce, there is a need for greater innovation and efficiency. This includes high-quality disease mapping, programme planning and implementation, and timely monitoring and evaluation, which will enable countries to demonstrate progress. 

Data-sharing is key

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the communication channels, data collection tools, and health care infrastructures established by NTD programmes have been re-purposed for training and capacity building for COVID-19 risk mitigation. 

NTD programmes will continue to serve as well-established grassroots platforms to implement NTD interventions along with other preventive health interventions for those living at the end of the road.

Assessing strengths and weaknesses to improve strategies based on quality data collection and analysis will be critical to success. 

ESPEN has a strong commitment to the improvement of data quality and use in the African member states, which includes ESPEN’s data portal, a central repository for NTD data across all diseases and treatments.

 The portal is being designed to facilitate transparency and data sharing among stakeholders. ESPEN partners now have access to 10,000 maps and data sets from 45 countries. Countries and other stakeholders have access to a source of historical and current information on NTD endemicity including disease-specific epidemiological surveys, treatment coverage, and other programmatic data.

COVID-19 has further exacerbated the socio-economic consequences such diseases can have worldwide, and there is an even greater need for more resources to be channelled towards NTD programmes. 

Improving access to quality data to effectively fight disease should be at the top of the WHO AFRO agenda. Ultimately, data tools such as ESPEN data portal will be our winning strategy in the fight against NTDs.

 * Dr Yao Sodahlon is Director of the Mectizan Donation Program.

Dr Yao Sodahlon

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