GENEVA - The World Health Organization reports the COVID-19 pandemic has set back years of gains made in efforts to eliminate neglected tropical diseases, a diverse group of 20 illnesses that disproportionately affect impoverished communities in tropical areas.
Neglected tropical diseases affect 1.7 billion people globally. Forty percent are in Africa, a continent that encompasses most of the 10 high burden countries in the world.
Over the past decade, the World Health Organization reports great progress has been made in the treatment of many of these life-threatening and debilitating diseases. It notes 42 countries around the world have eliminated at least one disease.
However, Mwelecele Malecela, director of WHO’s department of control of neglected tropical diseases says she fears a lot of this good work could be undone because of the negative impact of COVID-19.
She says the pandemic has caused disruptions and delays in NTD services. She says mass treatment campaigns, surveys of affected areas, and the transport and delivery of medicines have been interrupted.
"All the efforts that have been done to control neglected tropical diseases, to bring about elimination in most of the affected countries, will be reversed if the focus is not kept, a good focus on surveillance, a good focus on continued interventions in some of the countries which are nearing elimination," said Malecela.
WHO reports Guinea Worm disease is on the cusp of eradication, with only 27 human cases reported in six African countries last year. In 1986, about 3.5 million human cases occurred annually in 21 countries in Africa and Asia.
WHO says Yaws, a chronic skin infection is a disease that can be eradicated in the Indian sub-continent. Malecela cites several other success stories.
"In terms of elimination of trachoma, we have Morocco, we have Ghana and more recently, we have Gambia," said Malecela. "We have the elimination of lymphatic filariasis in Togo and in Malawi…In Yemen, which is outside Africa in the middle east, we have eliminated lymphatic filariasis under very difficult conditions. But they have managed to do it and that has been a very impressive feat.”
At the end of January, WHO formally launched a new road map aimed at driving progress towards a world free of NTDs by 2030. Health officials consider the road map a key piece in ensuring countries build back better after COVID-19 by focusing on resilience and strengthening health systems.