KIGALI, Rwanda — Neglected tropical diseases are a group of bacterial and parasitic infections most often contracted by people living in impoverished regions. They can lead to pain, malnutrition, and disability. This class of diseases may also be associated with social stigma, isolation, and a continuing a cycle of poverty.
The effects of these diseases are particularly formidable given the extent of their impact: about one billion people, or one in seven people worldwide, suffer from at least one of these diseases.
USAID has focused its attention on the treatment and prevention of seven specific diseases, which account for 80 percent of the sickness caused by neglected tropical diseases across the world. Toward this end, USAID has worked with pharmaceutical companies and local partners to deliver 1.6 billion treatments for these diseases to 140 million people in the last 10 years.
For every dollar that USAID spends, an additional 26 dollars is provided by private companies for mass treatment campaigns. With this help, USAID aims for the elimination of these seven diseases by 2020.
Somalia is one such country where inhabitants are heavily impacted by neglected tropical diseases. Of the 10.6 million people living in Somalia, three million school-aged children need to be treated regularly for intestinal worms. Another 300,000 Somali children require treatment for schistosomiasis, an infection caused by freshwater parasitic worms.
Even so, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, was forced to withdraw on-the-ground support from Somalia in 2013, as a result of attacks on its staff by the Al-Shabab militant group. Previously, MSF had 1,500 healthcare workers providing free healthcare, malnutrition treatment and clean water, responding to epidemics, and running immunization campaigns in Somalia.
The future for healthcare in Somalia is uncertain. However, the current state of healthcare in Rwanda, given its recent tumultuous past, provides reason for hope.
In 1994, 20 percent of Rwanda’s population was killed in a 100-day genocidal campaign. Diseases like cholera spread during those 100 days, and many of the 250,000 women who were raped were left with HIV. Diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, which had been problematic already, continued to plague Rwanda. Humanitarian workers left the country, fleeing the violence.
However, since then, life expectancy has doubled in Rwanda. Maternal and under-five mortality rates decreased, and so did death rates for AIDS, TB, and malaria.
These recent healthcare successes in Rwanda are largely due to the Rwandan government’s efforts to build healthcare systems designed to address disease control. These systems include providing training for healthcare workers on how to treat certain diseases, promoting family planning and immunizations, and referring patients to specialized health centers when appropriate.
The Rwandan government also depends on foreign aid from the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, which provide 40 percent of its budget.
Even so, Rwanda’s recovery has not been a perfect one. There remain accusations of the current government’s involvement in the suppression of political dissidents, and assassination attempts. Clearly, continued aid in Rwanda and elsewhere will require careful monitoring, to the extent that aid supports any one regime. Nevertheless, improvements in healthcare in Rwanda serve to reinforce high expectations for the efficacy of foreign aid, and its importance in contributing to political stability.
– Madeline Reding