Over the last 10 years, a relatively behind-the-scenes global triumph has been taking place, improving prospects for a better and healthier life for 1 billion of the world’s poorest people living in close to 150 countries.
The global health success is the significant drop in the number of people requiring treatment for Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), a grouping of ancient diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. Today, however, the diseases only affect people living in the most vulnerable parts of the world, anchoring families in extreme poverty over generations.
Back in 2007, grounded by its conviction to promote equitable access to quality health care worldwide, the World Health Organization made a deliberate decision to take aggressive action against these diseases. The alternative was to wait for the diseases to gradually disappear over decades and centuries as living conditions improved, economies developed and medicines were discovered and distributed.
The WHO’s first-ever global partners meeting to address NTDs precipitated the turn of events to come. Calling the meeting a turning point, WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan told the world’s health ministers that “prospects for reducing the burden of debilitating diseases for at least one billion people have never looked brighter.”
What followed was a decade of leadership rallying global partners and building alignment around global targets to eliminate or eradicate NTDs. The WHO’s role setting priorities and creating strategic partnerships was instrumental in the increased control and prevention of NTDs, which dramatically changed their course.
A game-changing decision was the WHO setting out a vision for NTD programs integrated across diseases. Before 2007, NTDs were mainly addressed through independent, single-disease initiatives, only some of which worked well. What was missing, however, was global coordination of these donations and tracking them against specific targets. The 2007 WHO meeting laid the groundwork for the distribution of millions of donated medicines that became known as mass drug administration programs.
This decision further engaged pharmaceutical companies, who, as the developers and manufacturers of the highly effective medicines that could prevent and treat NTDs, had been running individual drug donation programs to treat individual diseases. When the WHO laid out an integrated vision, companies responded by making commitments to donate large quantities of safe and effective drugs. Ever since, companies have worked very closely with WHO and other partners on NTD prevention, control and elimination.
Five years later, efforts went even further and in 2012, inspired by the WHO Roadmap on NTDs, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, donor and endemic countries and civil society partners joined with 13 pharmaceutical companies to announce the largest public-private health partnership ever seen. For the first time, these organizations combined resources and committed to WHO’s 2020 goals, targeting a core group of ten NTDs for eradication, elimination, or accelerated control.
“The London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases” has been instrumental in driving the tremendous gains made in the last five years. According to a new WHO fourth report on NTDs, nearly a billion people received NTD treatments in 2015; the number of people at risk of NTDs fell by 20 percent over the past five years; and, over 10 billion tablets, equivalent to over 7 billion treatments were donated by industry between 2012 and 2016.
This week, on the 10th anniversary of the ground breaking NTD partners meeting that led to the WHO NTD roadmap, global leaders are gathering once again to celebrate progress and recommit to doing even more to achieve the 2020 goals.
From India and Syria to Oman and Mexico – and earlier this month in Togo – the meaningful reductions in NTD cases and elimination of individual NTDs globally can be directly attributed to the power of partnership and alignment of specific goals. But more important than the process is the progress.
Today, we can celebrate the millions of lives saved and improved, the economic losses averted and the prospect that many of these ancient diseases don’t have much more of a future.