Poverty related and neglected tropical diseases affect more than one billion people around the world. AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as Dengue fever and Chagas disease are responsible for the deaths of over 6 million people every year. These diseases are closely linked to chronic and extreme poverty, and disproportionately affect people living in some of the world’s poorest countries.
In recognition of the impact that NTDs have on global health, DSW and its partners in the “Let’s Save Lives” online campaign have teamed up to push for more international support and investment to eradicate NTDs for good. Through greater investment in innovative diagnostics, prevention and treatment, these diseases can become a thing of the past. You can learn more about the campaign and its aims here.
In a month where the “Let’s Save Lives” campaign is focused on NTDs and how the global health community can beat them, two important reports have been released which take stock of the progress made to date, and map out what still needs to be done to control and ultimately eradicate NTDs for good. The WHO published their third report on NTDs at the beginning of February 2015, focusing on the investment needed to overcome the impact of NTDs by 2030. Today, the UK All Parliamentary Party Group on Malaria and NTDs present the UK Coalition against NTDs’ annual report in London.
As we head into a couple of defining months for the global health agenda in 2015, what are the key issues coming out of both reports?
1: Significant progress has been made in the fight against NTDs
While NTDs still cause untold damage to the lives of millions of people, there has been much progress of efforts to control and eliminate them. For example, the Who cites more than 74 countries as being ready to implement national NTD master plans, which aim to stimulate an increased demand for donated medicines. In addition, progress has been made in rolling out treatment focused on children on, for example, African trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Donations of medicines from the pharmaceutical industry amounted to 1.35 billion treatments in 2013, and since 2006 the WHO estimates that over five billion anti-parasitic treatments have been provided to those most in need.
However, if we are to secure and build on the progress that has been made in the last decade, the international community needs to step up its support. Right now, the WHO reckons that funding for NTDs falls short of what is needed. In fact, it estimates that the funding needed to reach the targets included in its NTDs roadmap for 2030 is double that which is currently set aside for NTDs. Both reports argue that investment in the fight against NTDs is highly cost-effective; Interventions for NTD control were among the most cost–effective interventions assessed by the Disease Control Priorities Project.
A similar shortfall in funding exists for research and development targeted at new diagnostics, prevention and treatment of NTDs. As the latest GFinder report concluded, funding for this area from donors such as the US and the pharmaceutical sector continues to decline. This is important, as both reports highlight the huge contribution that R&D for global health could have in the fight against NTDs.
3: Research and Development crucial to accelerating progress
Unsurprisingly, both the WHO and the UK Coalition against NTDs come out strongly in support of the potential contribution of global health R&D. As the latter report highlights, where treatments or vaccines do exist for these neglected diseases – such as lymphatic elephantiasis or sleeping sickness – they are wholly inadequate or outdated. Many of these diseases, like Chagas for example, have no vaccine or treatment. The scientific and global health communities both recognise the need for investment in research. As the WHO states:
“Avenues for research and development must be pursued in order to find new approaches and simplified strategies as well as novel diagnostics, medicines, vaccines and vector control methods, as vector-borne diseases continue to spread at an alarming pace and to new geographical areas.”
That there is currently no market incentive for industry to invest in treatments for these diseases is clear: of 1556 new medicines developed between 1975 and 2004, only 21 were for tropical diseases. Funding is therefore needed from international donor governments. DSW has been actively seeking the European Commission’s commitment to increased financial and political support for global health R&D as part of the “Let’s Save Lives” campaign. What is also needed is institutional support for new and more innovative models aimed at developing new treatments and quickly getting them into the hands of people that need them the most.
4: New and innovative ways to get medicines where they are needed are emerging
In its report, the UK Coalition against NTDs identifies Product Development Partnerships (PDPs) as being well-placed to respond to the gaps in global health research that make treating NTDs so difficult. We have gone into more detail on PDPs in previous posts, but their ability to bring together public and private, industry, academia and philanthropy is beginning to usher in new treatments. Some of these are progressing through clinical trials as we speak – for example on hookworm, leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis. These breakthroughs are crucial, and respond to the WHO’s call for the need to bridge fundamental academic research and the creation of accessible and affordable medical products.
5: Tackling NTDs crucial to post-2015 agenda and eradicating extreme poverty
Finally, the challenges of NTDs and the damage they do to people and communities exist within the broader context of negotiations on the post-2015 agenda and the successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Both reports releases this month argue that progress on tackling NTDs can only be made through strengthening the health systems and health coverage of those countries worst affected. In particular, the experience of the Ebola crisis in West Africa has shown how important strong public health systems are to fighting diseases – and this is no less true for NTDs. Securing NTDs – and emphasising the importance of commitment to the R&D agenda and the role of health systems – in the post-2015 development agenda will be crucial to achieving what the “decisive action” the WHO says is needed to avert a situation where they “will remain neglected and continue to pose a barrier to ending extreme poverty.” That, in essence, is the key: the fight to end NTDs is a fundamental part of the fight to end poverty and empower millions of people around the world to escape the misery of these diseases.
The “Let’s Save Lives” campaign was launched by DSW in October 2014. The campaign is focused on raising awareness about the importance of investment in global health research and development (R&D) to address HIV & AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases. It is calling on EU and international politicians to step up and commit political and financial support for R&D which can create new vaccines, treatments and diagnostics so that we can finally eradicate these diseases. The campaign will run until March 28th 2015. It is supported by 17 international European civil society organisations, and by a growing number of Members of the European Parliament. Sign up to support the campaign here!