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How controlling neglected tropical diseases can curb COVID-19

Maria Rebollo Polo
By Maria Rebollo Polo

ESPEN Team Leader - World Health Organization, Regional Office for Africa

Posted on Wednesday, 22 July 2020 13:48

A health worker in personal protective gear takes a break at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.
A health worker in personal protective gear takes a break at the Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht

Every day we hear further stories about the devastation COVID-19 is causing around the world, while the global health community is rightly working together to put a stop to this pandemic.

Although recommendations have been put in place by key health bodies, fears remain over how this virus will impact the poorer and more marginalised communities in Africa, who face challenges in practising the recommendations of social distancing and handwashing. Yet, many of these communities are already burdened by other diseases.

Neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs, are a group of communicable diseases that affect more than 1.5 billion people globally, more than a third (39%) of whom live in Africa.

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These dangerous and destructive diseases, such as trachoma, schistosomiasis and onchocerciasis, can be prevented and treated, yet they continue to cause severe disfigurement, blindness and other long-term disabilities that create obstacles to education, economic growth and overall development. In order for these diseases to be prevented and treated, increased investments must be made to ensure health systems must be resilient.

Whilst COVID-19 receives unprecedented media attention, for many years NTDs were, as their name suggests ‘neglected’, receiving scant attention from the world’s leaders and minimal funding. However, COVID-19 and NTDs can both be prevented by taking the same preventative measures.

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Clean water, good hygiene and adequate sanitation are the foundations for fighting NTDs, as much as they are with COVID-19. Yet despite water and sanitation being recognised as a human right since 2010, many continue to live without adequate access to them.

For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 63% of people in urban areas, or 258 million people, lack access to handwashing facilities. Although these steps are important for all members of a community, those with NTDs or those in high-risk communities must be even more vigilant.

In fact, suffering from an NTD can weaken immune systems, making people even more susceptible to newer diseases like COVID-19. For the last few months, the importance of these steps in protecting COVID-19 have been emphasised repeatedly, and now it’s time to stress their importance in protecting communities from NTDs too.

At the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa’s Expanded Special Project for elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN) we have made it our mission to eliminate NTDs on the African continent.

We understand that the poorest countries and communities are least equipped to cope with COVID-19, and they are also hit hardest by NTDs. An estimated 896 million people worldwide use health care facilities with no water service and 1.5 billion use facilities with no sanitation services. Not only does this put the general population at risk, it puts health workers, those fighting to save the lives of others, at risk too.

In the context of COVID-19, our latest guidance encourages local health authorities to use existing NTD platforms, surveillance mechanisms and WASH education opportunities to support the implementation of COVID-19-related measures, as appropriate. We have worked hard to ensure that NTD programmes have been implemented in many communities across the continent, and now it is crucial that they are maintained, and are adapted to the current crisis.

National and local leaders must not turn their focus from NTDs towards COVID-19, rather they must look at taking a dual-approach towards the two. That’s why new initiatives such as the Stay Safe Africa campaign which seeks to protect citizens from this new disease, while recognising African communities’ existing settings and challenges, are so important.

Over the next decade, the World Health Organization’s 2021 – 2030 NTD roadmap will guide the global response to NTDs and ensure that the UN’s sustainable development goals, of ending the epidemic and reducing the number of people requiring medical interventions by 90%, are met.

This can still be achieved, even while fighting COVID-19. NTDs are diseases of poverty and inequity – by eliminating them we can drive development forwards and ensure that people are no longer affected by preventable and treatable diseases.

There are currently 600 million people in Africa that currently require treatment for NTDs. The same number could easily be affected by COVID-19. We cannot allow this to happen. More than ever, prioritising adequate hygiene and sanitation needs to be at the top of Africa’s agenda.

This pandemic has demonstrated that governments can advocate for improved hygiene and good handwashing practices, and can therefore continue to do so for other diseases.

NTD programmes have reached over a billion people for the last four years. We have the tools, data and knowledge to make this a reality. After all, continued action against NTDs will also help us in our battle to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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