The UK has just announced a world-leading commitment to crack down on some of the worst neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) across 25 of the world’s poorest countries.
The new aid programme from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), announced on Wednesday, will protect 200 million people from the debilitating diseases — through the delivery of 600 million treatments.
NTDs are a group of diseases that can cause disability and death, as well as trapping people in a cycle of poverty through stopping people being able to access education or employment.
The specific NTDs being tackled by the new UK aid programme are: lymphatic filariasis (a.k.a. elephantiasis); onchocerciasis; schistosomiasis; visceral leishmaniasis; and trachoma.
What are these diseases?
Lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis, is a leading cause of permanent disability worldwide. It’s a parasitic disease caused by microscopic wounds, spread from person to person by mosquitoes.
It can cause severe swelling, for example on the scrotum in men, and communities frequently shun and reject people disfigured by the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Affected people are often unable to work because of their disability, adds the CDC, harming both their families and their communities.
Onchocerciasis, meanwhile, is a disease that’s also known as river blindness. It’s caused by an infection with a parasitic worm, and symptoms include severe itching, bumps under the skin, and blindness. After trachoma, it’s the world’s second-most common cause of blindness due to infection, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Trachoma is a public health problem in 44 countries, and is responsible for the blindness or visual impairment of about 1.9 million people. It’s caused by a bacterial infection, and can be spread through personal contact and flies.
If someone has the infection multiple times, according to the WHO, their eyelashes may be drawn in so that they rub on the surface of the eye, causing pain, discomfort, and permanent damage to the cornea.
Schistosomiasis is also caused by parasitic worms, and people are often infected during routine agricultural, domestic, occupational, and recreational activities, says the WHO, which expose them to infested water.
Children are particularly vulnerable to schistosomiasis, through swimming or fishing in infested water, and lack of hygiene.
Visceral leishmaniasis, meanwhile, is characterised by irregular bouts of fever, substantial weight loss, swelling of the spleen and liver, and anaemia, according to the WHO. The leishmaniases are a group of diseases caused by parasites, transmitted to humans by the bite of infected sandflies.
The disease affects some of the poorest people in the world, says the WHO, and is associated with malnutrition, population displacement, poor housing, a week immune system, and a lack of financial resources.
For visceral leishmaniasis, the aim of the new aid programme is to completely eliminate the disease from Asia by 2022.
According to Simon Bush, Sightsavers’ director of NTDs, these diseases are “completely preventable and easy to treat” and yet they “cause agony, disability, and often trap people in a cycle of poverty.”
Bush added: “Thanks to DfID’s new flagship programme announced today we will be able to treat, control, and even eliminate more of them than we have ever before.”
“It is an unprecedented programme working on a scale and scope I have never seen, tackling five diseases in 25 countries and making a long-lasting impact on global health,” he said.
The programme will also work to support national governments in tackling the the diseases themselves in future.
It follows a commitment from the UK aid budget last year that provided treatment or care to over 140 million people suffering from NTDs.
Ahead of Global Citizen Live, hosted in London in April 2018, Global Citizens called on the UK government 10,993 times via email and Twitter to recommit to the 2017 UK pledge to protect 200 million people from NTDs.
Just 24 hours before the event, the UK government pledged to follow through on this commitment and announced that they would eliminate trachoma for millions of people by 2020 through allocating £20 million of their 2017 pledge.
These diseases — known collectively as NTDs — impact the lives of over a billion people around the world, and are also estimated to cost developing economies billions of pounds every year in lost productivity, according to DfID.
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Baroness Sugg announced the launch of the programme at the NTD NGO Network Conference in Liverpool.
“These debilitating — but preventable — diseases stop sufferers from working, studying, and leading prosperous, healthy lives,” she said.
“This new UK aid support will stop hundreds of millions of people suffering unnecessarily from treatable conditions,” she added. “It shows how the UK is helping to lead the way in tackling deadly global diseases more generally, including polio and malaria.”