Statistics released today at the World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF Africa) in Kigali, Rwanda, by Erasmus University show that sub-Saharan Africa could save $52 billion (purchasing power parity) by 2030 if the region meets the World Health Organization (WHO)’s 2020 control and elimination targets for the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
These statistics, developed with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, were released at a WEF Africa-sanctioned side event, convened by the END Fund to make the case for increased investments in NTD control in sub-Saharan Africa. Her Excellency Mrs. Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of the Republic of Rwanda, delivered opening remarks, which set the stage for this important discussion.
Meeting these goals could also help the region gain the equivalent of 100 million life-years that would otherwise be lost to ill health, disability and early death arising from these diseases.
"NTD control efforts offer a return on investment unparalleled in global health,” said Ellen Agler, Chief Executive Officer of the END Fund, a private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending the five most common NTDs. “Ending these debilitating diseases will help reduce poverty at all levels, from families and communities to whole nations.”
NTDs are a diverse group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases that are particularly prevalent in areas with limited access to safe water, proper sanitation and adequate medical services.
Sub-Saharan Africa bears over 40% of the global burden of NTDs. The five most common NTDs – lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharzia), soil-transmitted helminths (intestinal worms) and trachoma – account for 90% of the region’s NTD burden. At least one of these diseases is present in all 47 countries of the WHO’s African Region.
The impact of NTDs on both health and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa is massive. Each year, these diseases cause disabilities and disfigurements for millions of African citizens. They also increase absenteeism in schools and dramatically reduce labor productivity, ultimately perpetuating cycles of poverty.
“I have seen the devastating effects of NTDs first hand in my community,” said HRH Queen Sylvia of Buganda, a kingdom in Uganda, who delivered remarks at the side event today. “We cannot continue to let people across Africa suffer from these diseases of poverty when simple solutions exist. It is holding our people and our countries back. We can and we must do more.”
The five most common NTDs in sub-Saharan Africa can effectively be prevented and treated using low-cost, easy-to-administer interventions, such as preventive chemotherapy (PC) treatments through mass drug administration (MDA) in affected communities. Such interventions are extremely cost effective due to a number of factors, including drug donations (valued at $4 billion annually); the scale of national programs; the integration of drug delivery with other health initiatives; the use of volunteers and teachers for distribution; and the massive impact of NTD control on economic productivity and educational outcomes. Pharmaceutical interventions work alongside other prevention strategies, including the promotion of safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
In recent years, countries across sub-Saharan Africa have made tremendous progress toward ending NTDs. Donors, development partners and national governments have made unprecedented commitments to these diseases, including through the landmark London Declaration on NTDs, launched by a coalition of partners in January 2012, and the Addis Ababa NTD Commitment, signed by 24 African health ministers in December 2014 declaring increased leadership and budgetary contributions. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, specifically reference putting an end to NTDs by 2030.
Despite this progress, a funding gap remains to distribute medicines to the millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa who still lack access. Additional resources are urgently needed from all sectors – public, private and philanthropic – to reach the WHO’s 2020 targets for NTDs and reap the resulting health, education and economic benefits.
Notably, Rwanda, the host country for today’s event, has made tremendous progress on NTDs. Thanks to the leadership of the government and the support of partners such as the END Fund, the prevalence of soil-transmitted helminths (intestinal worms) has been reduced by 32% over the last 5 years. However, much remains to be done for the country to eliminate NTDs.
“Now is the time for leaders across Africa to prioritize NTD control and put an end to these terrible diseases in order to improve the lives of our people,” said Rwandan Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, who also spoke at the event. “In Rwanda, we have invested in our people, and we have seen progress as a result of this commitment. With human lives at stake, we simply cannot afford to wait.”