Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor has joined the battle against neglected tropical diseases. The 2011 World Food Prize laureate has accepted a position as special envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, a non-profit group that funds efforts to eliminate a variety of parasitic and bacterial diseases around the world. President Kufuor spoke to VOA about the challenge of combating some of the developing world’s most deadly, debilitating and intractable diseases.
“It is truly an honor to declare my acceptance for the position just offered to me," he said.
Former President Kufuor will now be the lead advocate for controlling and eliminating so-called neglected tropical diseases around the world. These include dengue fever and other bacterial infections, and parasitic illnesses such as river blindness, sleeping sickness and guinea-worm disease.
These diseases are widely associated with poverty. They are endemic in Africa and Asia and affect more than a billion people worldwide.
"This is why it should be all hands on deck," Kufuor said.
Dr. Neeraj Mistry, director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, says he is confident President Kufuor can lead the network's drive to eliminate seven of these infections by 2020. He says that Kufuor - who has also served as a global U.N. ambassador against hunger - will apply the same energy to that goal as he did while combating hunger, illness and poverty in his native Ghana.
“What President Kufuor has done in Ghana - on access to food through school feeding programs as well as broader environmental changes in primary health care interventions - has led to socio-economic development," said Mistry. "That’s a proven model on how to actually advance society.”
With President Kufuor's help, the Global Network plans to reach out to African governments to help them make fighting these debilitating diseases a priority of their national health strategies. The network also hopes that extending the reach of its mass drug distribution and vaccination programs into the remote communities of Africa will be easier with President Kufuor leading the effort.
“I feel humbled to be called the special envoy, but along the way I am sure the Network will bring in other partners. It becomes like division of labor - a global effort - it shouldn’t be one man effort," he said.
Public health experts say controlling or eliminating tropical diseases is especially important because they can make people more vulnerable to other deadly infections such as HIV/AIDS. And studies have shown that debilitating, disabling tropical diseases can have a more profound social and economic impact on a developing country than even killer diseases like malaria or tuberculosis.