Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are, according to the World Health Organization, a "diverse group of 20 conditions" that are most common in tropical regions, and that often result in disability, cognitive damage, disfigurement, and even death.
Even though they affect more than 1 billion people worldwide, they're considered neglected for a few reasons, including a lack of awareness about them, as well as a lack of concerted global action to tackle them. NTDs thrive in areas where access to sanitation, nutrition, and health care is lacking, and they mainly affect people living in poverty. As well as impacting people's health, they also deprive people of access to education and employment opportunities.
In Nigeria, which accounts for about 25% of the burden of NTDs in Africa, people living with NTDs often face stigma and discrimination, largely due to a lack of awareness about what NTDs and their symptoms are, and how they can be treated. But there is plenty of hope, because NTDs can be very effectively controlled, eliminated, or eradicated, through combined public health measures, effective treatment, and greater community awareness.
Many countries are seeing rapid reductions in the rate of at least one NTD, while others have successfully eradicated and eliminated them. According to the collective Uniting to Combat NTDs, 35 countries have eliminated at least one NTD since 2012 — like The Gambia, which eliminated the potentially blinding condition trachoma in April 2021, and Côte d'Ivoire, which eliminated human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, in March 2021.
Why Is Nigeria So Burdened With Neglected Tropical Diseases?
Nigeria is one of the most endemic countries in the world for NTDs, with an estimated 100 million people in the country at-risk for at least one NTD, according to international charity Sightsavers.
As highlighted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), NTDs flourish mainly in rural areas, in conflict zones, and in hard-to reach-regions. The diseases thrive in areas that lack quality and affordable health care services, where access to clean water and sanitation is also a big problem.
In Nigeria, according to a 2019 USAID report, only 44% of the population have good sanitation access and 39% have access to safe-to-drink water in rural areas — leaving people very vulnerable to NTDs. Meanwhile, nearly a third of Nigeria's children don't have adequate water supply to meet their daily needs, according to UNICEF.
4 Key Facts About NTDs Globally and in Nigeria
- More than 1 billion people globally suffer from at least one NTD.
- Nigeria is still battling 14 of the 20 NTDs listed by the World Health Organisation.
- Over 40% of the global NTD burden is concentrated in Africa.
- Safe water and good sanitation are both key in tackling NTDs, yet 40% of the world's population doesn't have access to handwashing facilites at home.
How Are NTDs Affecting People in Nigeria?
NTDs have a serious impact on individuals, families, communities, and economies. For individuals, they can cause serious short- and long-term harm to the health and well-being of those affected. Nigerians living with NTDs also often face stigma, isolating them from their communities and impacting their chances to access education, employment, community services, and more. This traps individuals in a cycle of poverty.
But NTDs also enhance other existing inequities too, like gender, ethnicity, and disability, and, as a result, NTDs are most prevalent among those populations least able to access essential services, including women, children, ethnic minorities, and displaced people.
Living with NTDs also puts real strain on the families affected. Since Nigeria’s poorest communities are the most affected by NTDs, there is a high chance of the diseases pushing families even further into poverty. Why? Because these families have to spend their already low incomes to help take care of their affected loved ones, negatively impacting the economic stability of families and communities at large.
What Are the Main Causes of NTDs in Nigerian Communities?
According to Dr. Nse Akpan, national coordinator of Nigeria's NTDs elimination programme, clean water, sanitation, and good hygiene practices are key to tackling NTDs, so a lack of access to these is a significant factor.
He further highlighted that a lack of consistent funding is also a major challenge — particularly amid the pandemic, with funds needed to help eradicate NTDs being reallocated to tackle COVID-19 instead.
Who Are the Key Players Tackling NTDs in Nigeria and Africa?
Since its founding in 2012, The END Fund, which focuses on delivering NTD treatments to those in need and mainly works in Africa, has provided over a billion treatments for NTDs — including treating 92 million people in 2020 alone. It's further trained 3.5 million health workers, and has performed over 43,000 surgeries to treat conditions like trachoma (which can cause blindness) and lymphatic filariasis.
In Nigeria alone, where The END Fund has been working since 2013, almost 170 million treatments have been distributed, with over 312,000 health workers trained.
Globally, Uniting to Combat NTDs, a parternship between the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also plays a really big part, working towards the achievement of the 2030 global roadmap towards NTD eradication. Sightsavers, which works across 30 countries, has also been at the forefront of efforts to eliminate diseases such as trachoma and onchocerciasis.
Governments too have made important commitments to tackle NTDs. For example, at Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in 2018, Mozambique, Botswana, and Belgium each made pledges towards ending NTDs. Mozambique committed US$6 million toward mapping the reach of river blindness and increasing coverage for elephantiasis and intestinal worms, and called on other African countries to work towards improving health for all. Botswana meanwhile pledges to prioritise the elimination of NTDs by mapping their prevalence and working with Southern African countries to eliminate NTDs by 2023.
What Actions Is Needed for Nigeria to Tackle NTDs?
The WHO has developed a global roadmap working towards eradicating NTDs by 2030. The roadmap calls for stronger accountability, intensified cross-cutting approaches, and a change in the operating model and culture — with every country affected taking full responsibility and ownership of their actions.
Based on the roadmap, the WHO has identified five key interventions to combat NTDs, including: making preventative medications widely available; targeting insects like mosquitoes and ticks, and other "vectors" that help NTDs spread; ensuring clean, safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all people; and breaking the chain of NTDs spreading from animals to humans, like with rabies for example.
For Global Citizens looking to help, you can support and amplify the work of the organisations, activists, and advocates leading the global eradication effort (such as those mentioned above), as well as continuing to call on world leaders to do more to eliminate NTDs.
You can start by adding your voice to the Sightsavers social wall and using the hashtags #PlayYourPart or #BeatNTDs.
For more information and coverage on NTDs, check out “The Last Milers,” a Global Citizen profile series that highlights the remarkable people tackling NTDs around the world.
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.