Commitments made on neglected tropical diseases at WHO summit

A student in Tanzania receives medication for schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease. Photo by: RTI International / Louise Gubb

Editor’s Note, April 25: This article was amended to clarify that NTDs include parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases

GENEVA, Switzerland — Endemic countries, bilateral donors, the pharmaceutical industry and philanthropists came together on Wednesday to pledge support in the fight against neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs, at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

International organizations committed to prioritize the issue, with more than half a billion dollars worth of new support pledged in recent days, as Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation claimed that the eradication of at least one condition — Guinea worm disease — is within reach.

At the same time, the WHO launched a report claiming “unprecedented” progress on tackling the group of 18 parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases, with 60 percent of those in need now having received treatment for at least one NTD.

Amid cheering for progress made, there was recognition that hundreds of millions of people still lack access to health care and quality diagnostics. Key challenges to be discussed in the coming days of the summit — which runs through Saturday — include the availability of affordable drugs and timely diagnostics, particularly in the absence of robust health systems in many of the affected countries, and continued out-of-pocket expenditure by patients.

Global health experts are currently gathered in Geneva to discuss NTDs, an umbrella term for a diverse group of potentially debilitating diseases primarily found in areas with high rates of poverty near the equator.

They affect an estimated 1.6 billion people — more than half a billion of whom are children — in 149 countries, and kill about 170,000 people annually. In 2015, the WHO estimated that $750 million of funding a year would be needed to tackle NTDs up to 2020 — which represented about double the amount of annual funding at the time — and $460 million a year to maintain progress between 2020 and 2030, excluding vector control.

A range of financial and other commitments, including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding from the British and Belgian governments and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, were made or confirmed at the Global Partners Meeting on Wednesday, which kicked off the NTD Summit.

Initially announced over the weekend, the U.K. government confirmed a total investment of 360 million British pounds ($460 million) in “implementing programs” during the next five years, doubling its current average annual investment in tackling NTDs.

The figure includes 205 million pounds of new funding toward programs that tackle NTDs over the next five years; as well as 55 million pounds of previously planned spending during the next two years, a result of the U.K.’s 2012 commitment on NTDs; and implementation funding of 100 pounds million from the Ross Fund, which supports research and development.

Lord Michael Bates, minister of state at the U.K. Department for International Development, said that: “Over the next five years our support will supply up to a billion treatments to people at risk in the developing world … protecting over 200 million people from pain, disability, disfigurement and death.”

He added that the support would prevent up to 400,000 cases of blindness caused by trachoma and will help “to ensure that Guinea worm becomes only the second human disease ever to be eradicated.” Efforts will also go toward eliminating visceral leishmaniasis in Asia. The U.K. has delivered on 450 million treatments since 2009, he said.

Bates detailed that 48 million pounds of the funding would go to the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, which was launched in 2003 to cut research costs associated with tackling NTDs; 30 million pounds to the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, a Geneva-based nonprofit working on diagnostic tests for poverty-related diseases; and 10 million pounds to the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases, a group that works to align the research on NTDs with program needs.

“NTDs trap families in intergenerational poverty … Entire economic futures are foreclosed. We must change this.”

— Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will also commit $335 million worth of grants over the next four years to support NTD programs for drug development and delivery, disease surveillance and vector control. This comes on the back of a $1 billion investment from the foundation during the past decade. The new commitment includes $42 million for The Carter Center to eliminate Guinea worm disease.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the foundation, said that eradication of Guinea worm is within reach: There were just 25 cases reported last year, compared with 3 million 30 years ago. He suggested drawing lessons from polio eradication, and called for a “larger bench of investors” working on NTDs.

“NTDs trap families in intergenerational poverty … Entire economic futures are foreclosed. We must change this,” he said.

The Belgian government pledged an additional $27 million, in an effort to eliminate sleeping sickness in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by 2025. A matching contribution will be made for the next three years by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo cautioned that over 50 million people are at risk of contracting sleeping sickness, if it is not addressed. According to the WHO, up to 20,000 people worldwide may be infected with the disease, with the DRC accounting for 85 percent of all new cases.

Belgium also formally joined the international coalition to control, eliminate and eradicate 10 NTDs. The coalition is a group of governments, nonprofits, pharmaceutical companies and international organizations formed on the back of the “London Declaration” in 2012, with the aim of collaborating to control or eliminate 10 NTDs by 2020.

“To deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and eliminate extreme poverty, there is no better strategy than to address NTDs.”

— Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO

Meanwhile, DNDi announced that pharmaceutical company Merck has joined its initiative to accelerate and cut the cost of early-stage drug discovery for leishmaniasis and Chagas disease. The “Neglected Tropical Diseases Drug Discovery Booster” consortium was launched in 2015 to circumvent early-stage commercial barriers between pharmaceutical participants, allowing DNDi to search millions of unique compounds simultaneously in the hunt for new treatment leads.

Germany promised that the NTDs will be taken up on the agenda of the G20 meeting later in the year; while outgoing director-general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, said that fighting NTDs should be a top priority for the organization.

“To deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and eliminate extreme poverty, there is no better strategy than to address NTDs,” she said. She also drew attention to the collaboration and partnership with the pharmaceutical industry that has enabled the progress so far.

In the five years since the London Declaration, 10 pharmaceutical companies have donated over 7 billion treatments. Partners have helped in delivery of the drugs, resulting in these treatments now reaching nearly 1 billion people every year. The WHO has been recognized in forging partnerships to address the challenge of NTDs.

Pharmaceutical companies noted the role of local governments in running effective mass drug administration programs to fight NTDs, and emphasized the importance of country ownership and accountability.

Chan asked partners to list their “asks” for fighting NTDs. “We will nudge, we will persuade and we will urge countries to make this possible.”

She drew a standing ovation at the last major meeting at the WHO during her term, which ends later this year. Kofu Nyarko, an NTD survivor, presented her with a decorated scarf.

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About the author

  • Priti Patnaik

    Priti Patnaik is a Geneva-based financial journalist reporting on global health, international trade and investment disputes. She also reports on illicit financial flows. In the past, Priti has worked with a trade law firm and a U.N. organization in Geneva. She has also worked in New Delhi and New York reporting on finance. Priti has a master’s degree in development studies from The Graduate Institute in Geneva and a master’s in business and economic reporting from New York University. She also has a bachelor’s in microbiology, genetics and chemistry from Osmania University, India.

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