WHO director general says significant strides have been made in fight against sleeping sickness, elephantiasis and other neglected tropical diseases
In the past 10 years, record-breaking progress has been made in tackling tropical diseases that affect one in six people globally, according to the World Health Organization.
Data released by the WHO on Wednesday showed that in 2015 more than 60% of the 1.6 billion people suffering from neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), including sleeping sickness and elephantiasis, received treatment.
In the same year, there were fewer reported cases of sleeping sickness than in any other year since records began. Roughly 3,000 cases of sleeping sickness, also called human African trypanosomiasis, were recorded in 2015, an 89% reduction since 2000.
Last year, there were only 25 cases of Guinea worm disease, a debilitating condition that affected an estimated 3.5 million people in 1986. The cases occurred in three countries: Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
Such transformational progress was the result of one of the most effective partnerships in global health, the WHO said.
This week, governments, pharmaceutical companies and charitable organisations gather for a summit in Geneva, where $812m (£633m) has been pledged to tackle NTDs, some of the oldest and most painful diseases affecting the world’s poorest communities.
On Sunday, the UK government pledged to double the funding it gives to fighting NTDs. The cash is expected to help wipe out the parasitic disease visceral leishmaniasis in Asia, eliminate Guinea worm and save hundreds of thousands of people from blindness and other disabilities. The Belgian government also pledged an additional $27m, spread over nine years, towards the elimination of sleeping sickness in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“The WHO has observed record-breaking progress towards bringing ancient scourges like sleeping sickness and elephantiasis to their knees,” said Dr Margaret Chan, the organisation’s general director.
“Over the past 10 years, millions of people have been rescued from disability and poverty, thanks to one of the most effective global partnerships in modern public health.”
The number of people requiring treatment for NTDs decreased from 2 billion in 2010 to 1.6 billion in 2015.
The summit comes five years after the launch of the London declaration on NTDs, a commitment by the private and public sectors to control, eliminate and eradicate at least 10 NTDs. Since then, the global NTD programme has become the world’s largest medical donation scheme. Pharmaceutical companies have delivered 7bn treatments to nearly 1 billion people in impoverished communities in 150 countries.
Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “It’s delightful to see that the London Declaration of 2012 is bringing attention to focus.
“These are diseases of poverty and diseases of remote villages.
“There is this incredible collaboration starting with leadership, displayed by the companies, by the heads of government and real shoe leather on the part of the global health workers.”
Desmond-Hellmann said she was particularly impressed by the innovation shown to reach remote communities. A case in point is the treatment of African sleeping sickness, which used to require invasive lumber punctures and access to a microscope – both difficult to offer in poor, remote communities – but can now be treated using a tablet produced by a pharmaceutical company, Sanofi. Citing that drug as well as measures to tackle the tsetse flies that carry the disease, she said: “The true eradication of African sleeping sickness is in our sight.
“Sanofi expects to file approval for the pill for Africa sleeping sickness by the end of the year.”
The Gates Foundation has committed $335m in grants over the next four years to support NTD programmes focused on drug development and delivery, disease surveillance and vector control.
The WHO report detailed progress against each of the 10 diseases, citing countries and regions that are reaching elimination and control goals.
Since 2008, cases of visceral leishmaniasis have decreased by 82% in India, Nepal and Bangladesh because of improvements in vector control, social mobilisation of village volunteers and collaboration with other NTD programmes and drug donations.
Trachoma, the world’s leading cause of blindness, is also being pushed back. Mexico, Morocco and Oman have eliminated it as a public health problem, according to the WHO.
And lymphatic filariasis, also called elephantiasis, has been eliminated in eight countries, with the number of people globally requiring treatment down to 950 million in 2015, compared with 1.4 billion in 2011.
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