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Neglected Tropical Diseases 2021

Innovation and access: the keys to beating NTDs

iStock / Getty Images Plus / NatalyaBurova

Dr. Katey Einterz Owen

Director, Neglected Tropical Diseases, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

In the last decade, the world made great progress against neglected tropical diseases. We must continue to invest in access and innovation to end these diseases.

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are blinding, crippling diseases afflicting millions in the world’s most impoverished communities. In the last decade, the world has made tremendous progress in controlling and eliminating NTDs with 40 countries having eliminated at least one NTD. 

These gains have been enabled by millions of tablets of disease-preventing drugs that the pharmaceutical industry donates every year, helping low-income communities worldwide escape cycles of poverty caused by NTDs.

In the last decade, the world has made tremendous progress in controlling and eliminating NTDs with 34 countries having eliminated at least one NTD. 

Innovation to improve access to treatment

Unfortunately, we’re not yet reaching everyone; about 65% of those who needed treatment for at least one NTD received it last year, those we are missing are often in some of the hardest places to reach. Luckily, partners have taken on the challenge to ensure these life-saving donations are delivered even in hard-to-reach areas. 

Last year, after a months-long pause due to the pandemic, mass drug administration campaigns resumed in Senegal and Mali. Here, the Reaching the Last Mile Fund supported treatment for 6 million people and training of over 6,000 community health workers in river blindness and lymphatic filariasis (LF) programs, made possible by drugs donations from MSD and GlaxoSmithKline.

To map the burden of schistosomiasis and intestinal worms in Ethiopia—and improve drug delivery—The END Fund trained health workers to conduct surveys via mobile phones. In India, the Government and its partners moved all planning and coordination for deworming campaigns online, allowing the program to reach nearly 19 million children. 

Innovation through dynamic partnerships

The Indian government is rolling out a groundbreaking approach to LF called triple-drug therapy. Unlike past treatments, this treatment kills the adult parasite that causes LF, making it more effective and potentially dramatically speeding up the timeline towards disease elimination. The three drugs used—ivermectin, diethylcarbamazine, and albendazole—are donated by MSD, Eisai and GlaxoSmithKline.

In Africa, fexinidazole—the first oral treatment for sleeping sickness, developed by DNDi and donated by Sanofi—is significantly more effective and tolerable than the previous treatment. Being an oral treatment, it is also more accessible to people living in remote areas.

We’re also better at reaching young children through new forms of deworming medicines. Recently, Merck KGaA developed a new paediatric formula to treat and prevent schistosomiasis and Johnson & Johnson created a chewable, better-tasting formulation to treat and prevent soil-transmitted helminths. 

Keep the momentum going

These remarkable developments were made possible by joint efforts between endemic countries, pharmaceutical companies, donor governments, NGOs, the World Health Organization and private philanthropy. Investments from donor governments like the UK have been vital in creating programs that pave the way toward NTD elimination. However, these gains are in jeopardy due to the recent UK foreign aid cuts, which have resulted in millions of people being left behind. The exemplary partnership of pharmaceutical companies to develop and provide free medicines must continue to be matched by the public and philanthropic sectors to deliver these needed interventions.

Many goals have already been met, but only by continuing to invest in these massively successful programs can we reach the endgame for these diseases and achieve a future free of NTDs. 

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