Eliminating the menace of neglected tropical diseases

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Though much of the world has never heard of diseases like lymphatic filariasis or schistosomiasis, these and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a daily reality for many living in Africa and across the world.

These terrible diseases affect more than one billion people worldwide, disabling, disfiguring and blinding their victims, and making it difficult for the worlds poorest communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

I have spent decades working to help combat these menacing diseases as a physician and official at the World Health Organisation, and I have been fortunate to witness increasing momentum from the global
community to work together to control these NTDs.

But significant gaps remain today we still need better treatments for certain NTDs, more treatments for others and more effective ways to deliver existing drugs to those who need them.

Now there is more reason to hope that we may soon see a future free of these diseases. In London this week, global health organisations, bilateral donors, pharmaceutical companies, private foundations and representatives from NTD-endemic countries came together to undertake a robust, collaborative response to these challenges.

They launched the largest co-ordinated effort to-date to combat NTDs. Working together, these organisations have created a real opportunity to help hundreds of millions of people affected by these terrible diseases build self-sufficiency.

Their innovative partnership is changing how we approach global health problems and will increase the impact of previous NTD programmes, building on tremendous progress so far.

For decades, partnerships that combined the resources of public and private-sector organisations have provided a viable alternative to the historically limited research and investment from for-profit drug companies.

For example, thanks to the WHO Tropical Diseases Research Programmes collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, a variety of tools have been developed to combat river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, leprosy, sleeping sickness and other diseases.

The new co-ordinated action announced this week will take these previous efforts to a whole new level. Together, these partners have pledged to increase the supply of existing drugs and invest and collaborate on research to accelerate the development of new and better drugs.

Additionally, global health organisations will provide critical funding to support strengthening and improving delivery systems to ensure existing treatments are delivered to those who need them.

Partners have signed onto the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases a document that pledges enhanced levels of collaborative efforts to combat NTDs.

Building off the tradition of pharmaco-philanthropy set forth by past public-private partnerships on NTDs, a number of companies have pledged to provide for as many drugs as needed to protect people from these diseases.

As such, many companies will extend their donation programmes to the end of the decade and companies will provide a total 1,4 billion treatments on average each year.

This follows in the footsteps of past drug donation programmes, such as Merck & Co Incs historical pledge in 1986 to donate as much as is required for as long as it takes of its drug to fight river blindness, as well as other programmes that successfully reduced cases of leprosy, river blindness and other diseases.

Innovative partnerships such as thisthat partner the resources of private-sector players with those of public-sector health programmes, governments, and aid organisations have the potential to make immense progress against these diseases where individual efforts or bilateral partnerships are not enough.

To ensure these commitments make a public health impact, it is essential that NTD-endemic countries, like Zimbabwe, work to ensure the newly-available medications can be effectively delivered to those who need them.

These countries should also prioritise integrated, innovative NTD programmes that combat multiple health challenges simultaneously.