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Pitching in to End Neglected Tropical Diseases

Walter Panzirer
Walter Panzirer

Helmsley Trustee

In recent years, infectious diseases like West Nile, Zika, and Covid-19 have dominated global headlines while the ravages of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) have quietly persisted.  

NTDs, a group of debilitating viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases including river blindness and elephantiasis, affect 1 of every 5 people around the globe. They cause enormous suffering and often life-altering disability, and unfortunately affect the poorest populations. These diseases have received insufficient attention and funds, given the economic and social burdens that they place on communities as well as the cost burden on countries globally. As a funder of programs that support rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa in building resilience, we recognize the cost of inaction in combatting this burden is higher than the cost of action.   

Many people have been working to fight NTDs. We have the science, the pharmaceutical advances and donations, and the on-the-ground know-how to treat and eliminate NTDs. We know it’s doable because we can see the progress that has already been made in battling NTDs. Since the World Health Organization set global targets in its NTD Roadmap—for a 90 percent reduction in the number of people needing treatment for NTDs, and for at least 100 countries to have eradicated one NTD by 2030—50 countries have eliminated an NTD. Indeed, 600 million fewer people required interventions against NTDs in 2020 than in 2010

Despite all the progress that’s been made, however, the situation is growing more urgent. It’s time to unite and continue to invest to end NTDs. NTD programs experienced setbacks because of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to reduced implementation of interventions and difficulties in accessing treatment and health products. Many NTDs are still on the rise; schistosomiasis infection rates rose 30 percent between 1990 and 2015.  

As the earth warms, cases of NTDs are expected to rise and shift into new areas because of changes to weather patterns. More areas are now favorable to mosquitoes, which are vectors for diseases like dengue and chikungunya. Indeed, dengue cases reported to the WHO rose from half a million in 2000 to 5.2 million in 2019, and half the world’s population is now exposed to dengue risk. A 2019 study forecasted that because of rising temperatures and increased urbanization, more than 6 billion people will live in areas that are suitable for dengue transmission by 2080.

With higher temperatures, longer summers, and increased flooding, NTDs are also moving north into Europe. In the US, Americans in the Gulf Coast states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—are vulnerable to Chagas disease, dengue, chikungunya, leprosy, and cysticercosis. 

In 2014 we joined alongside other donors in the fight to eradicate NTDs, by investing in The End Fund for the treatment and prevention of intestinal worms, schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis in Angola. Since then we’ve made additional grants to The End Fund and SightSavers, as well as an investment of more than $26 million to the Reaching the Last Mile Fund to eliminate river blindness and lymphatic filariasis in 11 African countries. Most recently, we were part of $750 million in commitments from a range of donors, governments, and private philanthropists to help all 54 African countries work toward the goals of the WHO’s NTD Roadmap.  

We want to do our part to help countries eliminate NTDs. From collaborating with our partners, we know that this goal is achievable, and we can see the finish line for the countries in which our grantees work. We call on leaders in government, industry, and philanthropy to step up and form more private-public partnerships that can eradicate NTDs.