A bold new blueprint to tackle all neglected tropical diseases has been agreed at the United Nations health agency’s World Health Assembly, which will involve a radical shift in approach.
“We now have the consensus and the commitment of every country to work in an integrated, cross-cutting manner in tackling all the neglected tropical diseases”, said Dr Ren Minghui, World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage, Communicable and Noncommunicable Diseases.
The freshly-inked roadmap sets global targets and milestones to prevent, control, eliminate and eradicate 20 neglected tropical diseases and disease groups, which affect hundreds of millions of people. It replaces the first blueprint published in 2012, whose targets will not be achieved, despite significant progress, WHO explained.
In addition to a focus on improved coordination and collaboration among health partners in the next decade in all countries, another distinct feature is a drive for greater ownership by governments and communities.
The 2030 targets include a 90 percent reduction in the number of people requiring treatment for neglected tropical diseases and a call to eradicate dracunculiasis – also known as Guinea-worm disease – and the chronic skin disease yaws, that affects mainly children below 15 years of age.
“The new road map addresses critical gaps across multiple diseases, integrates and mainstreams approaches within national health systems and coordinates action across sectors,” said Dr Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, Director, WHO Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “It also provides us with opportunities to evaluate, assess and adjust programmatic actions as needed over the next decade.”
The emphasis of the new approach is on sustainability and follows a decades-old discussion about the relative merits of so-called “vertically” funded programs that target specific illnesses, compared with the longer-term “horizontal” approach that involves comprehensive primary health care services offering greater overall protection.
“To do so effectively…countries must change their operating models and culture to facilitate greater ownership of (disease eradication) programs”, Dr Minghui added, in a call for “smarter investments and high-level political commitment” to reduce the social and economic consequences of neglected tropical diseases.
While most neglected tropical disease-control programs rely on medicines to treat sufferers, WHO has also warned that emerging drug resistance threatens decades of advances. It remains crucial to monitor drug efficacy closely and develop “an appropriate arsenal of second-line drugs” to ensure that populations continue to be protected against neglected tropical diseases, it said.
In a related development, COVID-19 had played its part in making communities more vulnerable, the UN agency noted, as some people have taken antibiotics in the mistaken belief that they would protect them from the virus.
While some countries have seen their antibiotic use dramatically decline during pandemic lockdowns, physical distancing and improved hand and respiratory hygiene, “in other situations, antibiotic use has risen alarmingly”, WHO said.
These challenges are on the agenda at the annual World Antimicrobial Awareness Week from 18-24 November. Its aims are to increase awareness and understanding of global antimicrobial resistance and encourage best practices among members of the public, health workers and policy-makers, to avoid the further emergence and spread of drug-resistant infections.
At the World Health Assembly, member states also recommended the adoption of two resolutions on meningitis control and epilepsy.
Committee A, which focuses on program and budget matters, decided to recommend the adoption of the first-ever resolution on meningitis, which would approve a global roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030 – a disease that kills 300,000 people annually and leaves one in five of those affected with devastating long-term consequences.
The Committee also recommended the adoption of a resolution calling for scaled-up and integrated action on epilepsy and other neurological disorders such as stroke, migraine and dementia. Neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death worldwide.