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Working Together to Tackle Neglected Tropical Diseases

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Chalk and cheese, sugar and salt, oil and water; some things just don't mix.

You might be surprised then to read that this weekend will see a group of pharmaceutical company execs sitting round a table with Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) representatives, academics, the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO) and more, all with a common purpose.

The goal? To tackle a group of 17 infectious diseases that between them, affect over 1.4 billion of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

The group of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) include some well-known diseases such as leprosy and rabies, and others that may be less familiar, such as trachoma and guinea-worm disease. Some NTDs kill, whilst others cause severe impairment, particularly affecting women and children in developing countries. Together, many NTDs lead to disability such as blindness, resulting in billions of dollars of lost productivity.

This event that will bring together these seemingly opposing factions is the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's landmark conference on NTDs, Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases: Translating the London Declaration into Action, which is taking place from 16-18 November in Washington DC, USA.

The conference this weekend aims to build on January's London Declaration on NTDs, which saw the pharmaceutical industry, governments, the WHO, NGOs and multilateral organisations commit to control or eliminate 10 NTDs by 2020. The focus this weekend is on how we can work together to put the right systems in place and implement the change needed to turn this amazing vision into a reality.

In fact, the task ahead is much more complex than bringing together diverse groups of stakeholders. For a start, as well as drug companies and NGOs working together, elimination of these 10 NTDs will require combined responses from private foundations, aid donors, the WHO and national governments in countries where NTDs are particularly prevalent.

So what can we do to accelerate the pace of change? A network of international development NGOs, including Sightsavers, has committed to partnering to tackle NTDs together.

Firstly, we've committed to establishing exactly where the at-risk populations are throughout the world, so that we can ensure no communities are neglected in the fight against NTDs. This involves a programme of baseline disease mapping, which will enable much needed treatment to be scaled-up.

One such programme is the mapping of trachoma, a blinding disease that affects more than 21 million people. A consortium led by Sightsavers and funded by the UK government is carrying out trachoma mapping in more than 30 of the world's poorest countries in the next three years.

Secondly, the NGOs have committed to getting much better at integrating water, sanitation and hygiene (often known as WaSH) programmes into our work to tackle NTDs. Improvements to water, sanitation and hygiene will be absolutely critical if we're to break the cycle of disease, yet they are often overlooked.

For example, children with dirty faces are much more likely to contract trachoma than those without, so one of the best ways to prevent the spread of blinding trachoma is by encouraging face and hand washing - not easy where water is scarce. By training health workers to promote hygiene, and working to bridge gaps between health and water organisations, we'll be able to make a real difference.

Thirdly, we're determined to scale up the distribution of treatment for NTDs, so that more people can be given the help they urgently need. Earlier this year Sightsavers launched its ten year fast track initiative to tackle the other blinding NTD, river blindness. Through working with partners, Sightsavers plans to increase annual treatments by approximately 30 per cent, to reach 30 million people a year. We will also fund the training of 150,000 community volunteers each year, who will then distribute the treatments at a local level.

No one partner will be able to achieve elimination of these horrific diseases alone. Whether its NGOs, big business or governments, elimination of NTDs will only be possible through partner collaboration. I hope that when we get together at the conference this weekend, we'll be able to put aside our differences and get practical about how to work together. Through teamwork and determination, we really can radically change the lives of millions of the world's most vulnerable people and eliminate these diseases for good.