Campaigns against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are taking a heavy hit in some parts of the world in the face of COVID-19.
While there are groups and individuals carrying out exceptional efforts to prevent major setbacks when it comes to delivering vital health services, nutrition and the role it plays in NTD transmission often go unnoticed.
Although the connection is not fully understood when it comes to NTDs and nutrition, it is clear there is a connection.
On the one hand, research suggests that malnutrition exposes people to infection before it even occurs. When access to quality food is limited, as is the case in some low- and middle-income countries, people are more vulnerable to infections and are likely to experience more severe NTD symptoms.
On the other, NTDs, once they occur, can significantly contribute to malnutrition because of their devastating effects on the body, which exacerbates a vicious cycle of poor health and hunger.
This is especially true for NTDs like soil-transmitted helminths and schistosomiasis, according to Claire Chaumont, program and evaluation director at the END Fund, as they are both linked to anemia, stunting, and malnutrition.
While trying to fight off an infection caused by worms, larvae, or eggs, the body can ramp up its metabolic rate and deplete nutrients at a much higher rate than usual, a study on the role of nutrition in combating NTDs shows. Although these responses are protective by nature, they can wreak havoc on those who lack access to nutrient-dense food as their body strives to recover from the infection as effectively as possible.
Breaking the cycle of malnutrition and infection could therefore be the answer to fighting NTDs — but that’s easier said than done, and COVID-19 could make matters much worse.
All of this is “likely to lead to further food insecurity, and [could] impact the fight against NTDs,” Chaumont said in an email to Global Citizen.
According to the NTD Modelling Consortium, an organization of epidemiological specialists and data scientists, COVID-19 could also interfere with some countries’ overall ability to eliminate NTDs. This is because of the added pressure exerted by the pandemic on health systems that were already fragile long before it first hit.
To help reduce these effects, the World Health Organization notes that integrative and cross-cutting approaches should be favored in the fight against NTDs.
Research also shows that while treatment programs against NTDs place a strong emphasis on drugs as a way to prevent the spread of disease, a focus on nutrition is equally — if not more — crucial when it comes to tackling them preemptively.
Moving forward, world leaders can commit to comprehensive and collaborative plans that help address the connection between these seemingly competing health priorities, while simultaneously tackling COVID-19.
“We should call for more attention to the links between both topics, develop integrated strategies, and break down silos across these sectors,” Chaumont said. “Nutrition programs are a natural fit because of the joint benefits that each program has and the fact that [they] often focus on similar populations and through similar approaches.”
One way to do that would be for leaders to renew their commitment to the London Declaration, a collective pledge that united pharmaceutical companies, health organizations, leaders, and more in the fight against NTDs in 2012.
With the declaration coming to an end in 2020, new funding could go a long way in ensuring that the world achieves the WHO 2030 NTD road map within the next decade.
With just 0.6% of global health funding currently going to preventing NTDs, new commitments are desperately needed to safeguard the progress made towards their elimination. You can join us in calling on world leaders to renew the London Declaration and to mobilize new financial pledges of $1.5 billion to help accelerate progress towards it by taking action here.