A woman in South Sudan suffers from blindness as a result of trachoma, one of the 17 neglected tropical diseases as classified by the World Health Organization. Copyright Malaria Consortium/Jenn Warren
Whilst international security and the global economy are likely to dominate news coverage surrounding the G7 meeting in early June, there is another important point on the group's agenda that we should be paying close attention to. Among other health issues, diseases of poverty - or more specifically, neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) - will be a focal point for the summit meetings.
This group of 17 diseases consists of some of the most forgotten yet devastating conditions in the world, disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable communities. Among them is dengue fever, which is a mosquito-borne virus that causes flu-like symptoms and poses a growing threat in Asia. It affects an estimated 50-100 million people each year.
Trachoma, another NTD, thrives in poorly sanitised areas where bacteria can spread and, in extreme cases, causes eyelids to turn inwards, leading to blindness. Over two million people are visually impaired as a result.
Schistosomiasis is another of these neglected diseases which is caused by contact with water infested with parasites released by fresh water snails, affecting almost 240 million people worldwide.
Diseases of poverty
The causes and effects of these diseases are diverse, but they have one thing in common - they thrive in conditions of poverty. Poor sanitation, contaminated water sources, cramped living quarters and lack of accessible healthcare all contribute to their continued persistence.
NTDs also have a damaging socioeconomic impact that only serves to further deepen poverty. The resulting disabilities can be overwhelming, preventing work and stable earnings, either due to the conditions themselves or through caring for sick children or family members. Some, like lymphatic filariasis, cause disfigurements that lead to social stigmatisation, especially for girls and women, and can limit opportunities. Others such as soil-transmitted helminth infections have been found to inhibit childhood growth, even damaging intellectual and cognitive development. In remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa, these obstacles can seriously impinge on economic prospects.
Despite their pervasiveness, NTDs are generally eclipsed by the major killers like malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Yet they can leave just as deep a mark.
Malaria Consortium uses its expertise in malaria control as an entry point for addressing NTDs. Many of the NTDs are vector borne and require similar interventions to malaria. In Asia, we have worked in remote communities to limit human exposure to mosquitoes (which can spread dengue as well as malaria) through initiatives that teach the differences between malaria and dengue symptoms, and highlight examples within communities of effective prevention methods.
In Mozambique, with funding from the UK government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are introducing an innovative 'community dialogues' approach to improve the prevention of schistosomiasis. We work together with communities to establish dialogue sessions led by trained facilitators from within the community, where participants explore how the disease affects their day-to-day lives, identify locally relevant solutions and take communal action, for example by adopting effective preventive behaviours. In the areas where we work in Mozambique, rates of schistosomiasis are estimated to be as high as 78 percent.
Many NTDs are easily preventable and treatable, especially by providing effective drug treatments through mass drug administration. By recognising the danger that the diseases pose to fragile economies and vulnerable populations, world leaders will be paving the way for increased investment in affordable treatments that can help to alleviate poverty. Let us hope their message is heard.