There are seven common tropical diseases, also known as neglected tropical diseases, that collectively infect more than 1 billion, most of whom are living in abject poverty: whipworm, hookworm, roundworm, trachoma, river blindness, elephantiasis and snail fever.
Advocacy organizations like END7 and the Gates Foundation seek to end these neglected tropical diseases by delivering proper medication and increasing overall awareness in the American public through media campaigns. A chapter of END7 even exists on the Georgetown campus, but the issue cannot be simply solved by making it known to the public. There are steps that actors, policymakers and governments, especially the U.S. government, can take to make sure that NTDs become diseases of the past by 2020.
Though easily preventable, the seven NTDs cause debilitating conditions that affect not only an individual’s well-being and educational pursuits but also the health and security of that individual’s family and community in the long term. Too often, the contraction of an NTD results in the elimination of a source of income, which further entrenches entire households into vicious cycles of poverty. Some even lead to permanent disabilities; trachoma, an infection that is treatable with modern medicine, can cause permanent blindness without antibiotics.
Yet initiatives and programs to eliminate and manage NTDs do exist and are supported by various public and private actors, with some current treatments being subsidized by pharmaceutical corporations. In 2012, several companies came together to form the London Declaration, pledging more than $17 billion in aid to combat NTDs through 2020. The pact is an example of how private entities can pool their resources together to ensure that medications are delivered to regions in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia where people need treatment the most. Currently, most of the medications cost an equivalent of 50 cents per dosage.
One of the main public agencies leading the battle is the United States Agency for International Development. The organization is one of the largest financial supporters of NTD treatment programs, demonstrating how effective traditional strategies of monetary aid can make an impact. Yet even with its success, the effectiveness of the organization is actually under threat.
In the past 10 years, USAID has supported NTD treatment programs in 25 countries around the world, delivering 1.4 billion NTD medications to 687 million people since its launch in 2006. As a result of the direct investment, 127 million people in 18 countries are no longer at risk of elephantiasis, a parasite affecting lymphatic vessels, and 54 million people in 15 countries are free of the risk of blinding trachoma.
Even with the effectiveness of USAID, the recent 2017 U.S. federal budget proposal threatened to cut its modest funding, which would be devastating to the global effort toward eradicating NTDs. For context, only 0.003 percent of the annual federal budget funds USAID’s NTD program.
While private funding for NTD prevention will likely continue through the work of big pharmaceutical companies, the Gates Foundation and END7, this by no means prevents extensive federal involvement in such programs. Indeed, with a new presidential administration approaching, it is more important than ever to advocate for strong American leadership in the fight against NTDs.
With more than 1 billion people around the world at risk of contracting NTDs when the solution is both readily available and economically feasible, future administrations and private groups should remember the children who are not able to attend school and the parents who cannot provide for their families because they are suffering from preventable diseases. Organizations should be aware that the possibility for treatment is in their hands.
Maintaining an effective budget for USAID to combat these diseases is only one component of a broader battle. If the goal is to eliminate NTDs by 2020, it will not only take funding but also political initiative on an international level. It is time to fund modern medicine to tackle the problems of today rather than wait for tomorrow.
Madeline Kuney is a freshman in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. She is a member of END7.
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