An open letter: For an Africa free of NTDs, first have these structures in place
Tuesday January 31 2023
It’s World Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) day, a fairly new addition to those marked on annual calendars, but it doesn’t make it any less important; actually, for me and 1.7 billion people in the world, it’s one of the most important days of the year.
I am Dr Abdinasir Amin. I have over 20 years of experience in Public Health and I am your modern day East African Ibn Batutta. I am always asking ‘Why’ and looking for answers. In fact, my search has led me through the worlds of ‘Science’ and ‘Policy’ to solutions found by bringing scientific rigor to Public Health. This is what I do at the END Fund.
The END Fund, with its systems approach, investments in local leadership, and entrepreneurial spirit, brings innovative methods to its work in disease elimination. Such innovation, and the results we are seeing from it, are certainly cause for celebration.
As Ibn Battuta travelled through the physical world, I travel through the microbial world of infectious diseases affecting over 1.7 billion people worldwide, 40 percent of which are concentrated in Africa.
NTDs are caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites among other things. Though at first glance they may not seem as harmful as other infectious diseases such as HIV or Malaria, NTDs have the ability to bear long-lasting and often lifelong ailing consequences on individuals and com- munities alike.
So why celebrate on World NTD Day?
We celebrate progressive leadership. We celebrate critical milestones in the journey towards disease elimination. We celebrate all that provides us with the hope that we can be the generation to end these ancient diseases once and for all.
Today, Senegal has announced it has become the first country in Africa to successfully interrupt the transmission of River Blindness via the mass drug administration (MDA) of ivermectin alone. Not only does this call for celebration, but it also offers a blueprint for others to follow – a sign- post toward prosperity. Now 16 million Senegalese may no longer live with the risk that this dis- ease will affect them. With 600 million across Africa in need of treatment for at least one NTD, we need all the signposts we can get.
To effectively support NTD elimination efforts, and do so sustainably, I believe it’s equally important to raise awareness about the social and personal toll NTDs can take, as well as the potential impact of ending them. When equipped with the right tools and opportunities to share their experiences and shared goals, communities will have the awareness to protect themselves, and governments will prioritize their political, financial, and human resources to register similar achievements at a national scale.
However, scaling up to meet the challenge presented by NTDs will be tenuous unless the right foundations are in place at a local level. To play my role in doing this efficiently, I believe, will require me to transmit my message to everyone and not just my industry colleagues.
At the end of the day, impact is the END Fund’s raison d’être, and this manifests through the various funds we run.
The Flagship fund uses adaptable and holistic approaches to ensure most neglected people have access to NTD treatment. The Deworming Innovation Fund (DIF) uses innovation to reduce the public health burden caused by parasitic worm infections. The Reaching the Last Mile Fund (RLMF) paves the way to end two devastating NTD’s (River Blindness & Lymphatic Filariasis).
The newest addition, Accelerate Resilient, Innovative, and Sustainable Elimination of NTD’s or the ARISE Fund, is the second phase of a direct philanthropic response to the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) funding cuts to NTD’s in 2021. ARISE directly supports the 5 countries of Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Senegal with strong emphasis on sustainability and country leadership as key ingredients to accelerating progress towards the elimination of NTDs.
The ARISE Fund will invest in these countries’ efforts to develop resource mobilization strategies, and strengthen the leadership and capacity of decision makers who represent communities affected by NTDs. The Fund employs a philosophy of co-financing programs with governments in order to integrate NTD program delivery within existing health systems.
Before I say goodbye, I want to highlight a photo exhibition curated by Aida Muluneh, an Ethiopian artist and activist that highlights the dire need to end NTDs through a collaborative body of work entitled ‘Reframing Neglect’.
This collection will be unveiled on January 30 at the UN Headquarters in New York to mark World NTD Day, and it will showcase the need for greater awareness at all levels. Communities affected by NTDs must be presented with dignity; governments representing these communities must lead by example and collaborate to accelerate NTD elimination efforts; and those of us privileged to support both these constituencies must do our part to ensure the resources and prioritization of this work continue.
Only with these ingredients in place can we realistically envision an Africa free of NTDs.
Dr Amin is an Associate Vice President with The END Fund. He can be reached at @nasirowabass on twitter.