What do you think of when you hear about "neglected tropical diseases," or NTDs? 

Malaria, dengue, and yellow fever probably come to mind — but there are actually 20 infections and conditions under the umbrella of neglected tropical diseases. NTDs, which primarily affect people living in poverty, impact more than 1 billion people worldwide and are still prevalent in various developing countries. 

Over the last 50 years, the work carried out by the international community has resulted in tremendous strides in making these debilitating conditions a thing of the past. For example, Guinea worm disease — which former US President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center have worked to eradicate since 1986 — dropped to just 14 cases in 2021. But there is still much work to be done.

Ending NTDs is not some utopian fantasy; it’s a tangible vision of the future that we can work toward every day. The World Health Organization (WHO) has outlined an ambitious roadmap to tackle these diseases by 2030, but carrying it out requires countries, partners, and Global Citizens to demonstrate strong political will. 

Here's why — and how — NTDs can become a thing of the past.

What Are NTDs?

According to the WHO, NTDs are a "diverse group of 20 conditions that are mainly prevalent in tropical areas." Caused by bacterial, parasitic, or viral infections, they often result in disability, cognitive damage, disfigurement, or death. Though the epidemiology of these diseases is "complex," they tend to thrive in remote parts of the world where access to sanitation, nutrition, and health care is lacking.

NTDs are considered neglected for many reasons, including lack of awareness and their global rejection as important public health matters. "Neglected" is also a word that aptly describes how low-income populations affected by these diseases have been left to fend for themselves.

What Are 3 Key Facts People Should Know About NTDs?

  • Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are affected by NTDs.

  • These debilitating conditions often affect the poorest and most vulnerable communities, with 80% of cases in developing countries. 

  • The Kigali Declaration is a global commitment to eliminate NTDs by 2030. But with the COVID-19 pandemic and other seemingly competing health priorities, they have taken the backseat of international attention and action.

How Do NTDs Relate to Ending Poverty and the Global Goals?

NTDs are, in essence, diseases of poverty. Not only do they affect the poorest and most marginalized communities around the world, but they also fuel a vicious cycle of poor health and poverty. The associated loss of income affects not only households but also communities, the health systems they rely on, and ultimately, national economies.

When an individual contracts an NTD, it stunts their growth and development. A child with intestinal worm infection, for example, may not be able to attend school because of the disease. Their caregiver might not be able to leave the house to work, and the household, in turn, may not be able to afford food. Without proper nutrition, they'll be more vulnerable to infection and disease. In this way, NTDs perpetuate the cycle of poverty: They cause a series of knock-on effects across different areas, from how people eat and drink to how they play and work.

As a result of this disturbing cycle, it is not difficult to see why NTDs are such an important part of achieving the United Nations' Global Goals, the framework to end poverty, tackle climate change, and reduce inequality by 2030.

By eliminating these diseases, we can help achieve Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being, as well as Goal 2: Zero Hunger, Goal 4: Education for All, and Goal 5: Gender Equality. 

How Do We Achieve This?

The WHO’s roadmap toward the elimination and eradication of NTDs serves as a guiding document for world leaders, nonprofit organizations, disease experts, and other stakeholders to work together through action across sectors. Some of the goals outlined in this roadmap include a 90% reduction in the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs, eliminating NTDs in at least 100 countries, and the full eradication of two diseases.

The plan also identifies “cross-cutting” targets, such as better access to water, hygiene, and nutrition. Because the occurrence of NTDs can spread through contaminated soil or insects that thrive in unsanitary environments, improved sanitation could reduce as much as 78% of cases around the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Each target is measurable and quantifiable, with additional intermediary milestones in 2023 and 2025 to ensure that all parties are kept accountable.

The Kigali Declaration, set to be fully adopted during World NTD Week, takes this aspect one step further. It specifically calls on the public and private sector to work together to supplement these efforts, highlighting the need for concerted efforts from all stakeholders involved and renewed funding. In other words, governments and donors must make the commitment to eliminate NTDs a high priority. 

However, because COVID-19 has severely disrupted access to health care services and programs, strengthening fragile health systems equipped to deal with seemingly competing health threats has been challenging. Addressing this and building resilience will be crucial in ensuring that the pandemic does not result in a resurgence of diseases, putting more people at risk of harm.

Who Are the Key Players Involved?

Numerous organizations and initiatives have been working to eliminate NTDs for years. 

Among them is Uniting to Combat NTDs, a partnership between the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their collaboration, first aimed at supporting the London Declaration on NTDs, is now directed toward the achievement of the 2030 global roadmap toward NTD eradication.

Sightsavers, an organization working in communities across 30 countries, has also been at the forefront of the elimination of diseases such as trachoma and onchocerciasis

Finally, governments have made significant commitments to tackle NTDs over the years. At the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in 2018, for example, Mozambique, Botswana, and Belgium pledged to do their part. 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 help improve health for all.  to work toward improving health for all. Botswana pledged to prioritize the elimination of NTDs by mapping their prevalance and working with Southern African countries to eliminate NTDs by 2023. And Belgium allocated more than US$6 million toward the Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Disease (ESPEN) and an initiative of the WHO in Africa. 

The UK has been a leader of the effort against NTDs, contributing millions toward public health initiatives to eliminate NTDs globally. Recently, however, the UK has announced significant cuts to its aid budget, putting these promising efforts in jeopardy.

What Action Can We All Take to Help?

As we mark World NTD Day on Jan. 30, you can do your part by supporting and amplifying the work of those leading the global eradication effort, as well as continuing to call on world leaders to step up. 

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 people tackling neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) around the world. 

Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.

Global Citizen Explains

Defeat Poverty

What Will It Take to Eliminate Neglected Tropical Diseases Once and for All?

By Sarah El Gharib