GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — Neglected tropical diseases is a term used to describe a wide range of diseases that are common among vulnerable communities in tropical regions. Neglected tropical diseases rarely cause death, but for the one billion people that suffer from at least one type of neglected tropical disease, they can cause long-lasting disabilities such as disfigurement and blindness. These diseases are considered “neglected” because they are able to be either controlled or completely eradicated with proper intervention, but they do not receive the same kind of priority as many other diseases that are more prevalent in other regions of the world. In 2020, however, countries such as Togo, Myanmar and Malawi made significant progress toward eliminating neglected tropical diseases as a public health concern.
Togo Eliminated Sleeping Sickness
Trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness, is caused when tsetse flies transmit parasites to a host. This neglected tropical disease occurs in 36 sub-Saharan African countries and can be fatal if not treated properly. In 2020, Togo became the first African country to eliminate sleeping sickness as a public health problem. In 1995, there were an estimated 325,000 cases of sleeping sickness, but Togo has gone without any reported cases in the last 10 years. Since 2000, Togo has implemented strict screening for the disease and surveillance sites in high-risk areas. While sleeping sickness has been eliminated within Togo, the disease is still active in other nearby countries, so Togo will continue with its surveillance measures until it is no longer a risk.
Myanmar Eliminated Blinding Trachoma
Trachoma is a neglected tropical disease that causes infectious permanent blindness. While blinding trachoma is preventable, it has caused visual impairment for 1.9 million people living in 44 countries. In 2020, Myanmar joined the list of nine other countries that eliminated blinding trachoma as a public health issue. Myanmar began its Trachoma Control Project in 1964, providing local services such as surgery and antibiotic treatment as well as increasing health education and access to sanitary water. From 2005 to 2018, the percent of blindness cases caused by trachoma dropped from 4% to less than 1%. Myanmar will continue to expand its health care services and access to clean drinking water.
Malawi Eliminated Elephantiasis
Elephantiasis, also known as lymphatic filariasis, is a painful disease that can cause permanent disfiguration for those who are infected with the disease. When the infection is not treated, it damages the lymphatic system which causes permanent swelling in multiple parts of the body. Caused when mosquito bites transmit a parasite to the host, elephantiasis infects 120 million people in 73 different countries. In 2020, Malawi eradicated lymphatic filariasis, becoming the second African country to eliminate this neglected tropical disease as a public health problem. Elephantiasis is treatable with two medications, which are albendazole and ivermectin. Beginning in 1998, two pharmaceutical companies have donated around 12 billion doses of these medications in efforts to control elephantiasis. In 2017, they committed to donating 100 million new doses per year until 2025, making it possible for even more countries to join Malawi in having eliminated elephantiasis.
Hope for the Future
Another important development in the fight to eliminate neglected tropical diseases in 2020 is the World Health Organization’s new 10-year plan to eradicate yaws and dracunculiasis and reduce the need for neglected tropical disease treatment by 90% by 2030. This new plan takes a people-first approach that combines multiple approaches to improve the coverage and effectiveness of medical interventions. Recent progress in eliminating neglected tropical diseases has improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people living in developing tropical communities, and the World Health Organization’s implementation of a new plan for the future aims to improve the lives of billions more.
– Starr Sumner