South-South cooperation: Protecting indigenous peoples from NTDs

A Yanomami girl. Photo by: Ariel López / CC BY-NC-SA

Last week, the international development community celebrated the United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation, an opportunity for stakeholders to examine how developing and emerging countries can share knowledge, exchange best practices and pursue joint projects to generate tangible solutions to development challenges.

As a young officer in Argentina’s ministry of health, I attended in 1978 the first U.N. Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries, which produced the Buenos Aires Plan of Action to offer guidance and new energy to the concept of South-South cooperation. Almost at the same time, in Kazakhstan, which was then still part of the Soviet Union, the International Conference on Primary Health Care concluded with the Alma Ata Declaration, a public health milestone that recognized health as a fundamental human right.

It was an exciting time to be a part of these landmarks in public health, and see how these principles are being carried out today.

A closer look at Brazil and Venezuela’s joint commitment to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases within the Yanomami community — a nomadic indigenous tribe of approximately 35,000 people — highlights the key role South-South cooperation has had in reaching populations that need key health interventions. Equally important, this successful model can be replicated within Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as across the globe.

The Yanomami live in a remote stretch of tropical rainforests and mountains in the border area of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. The area is over 9.6 million hectares — about twice the size of Switzerland — and represents the largest forested indigenous territory in the world. However, this entire community is affected by or at risk of contracting the parasitic disease onchocerciasis, or river blindness, which is caused by fly bites and can lead to loss of sight.

The high prevalence of onchocerciasis within the Yanomami community represents the last stronghold of this disease in the region, which has made significant strides toward its elimination in addition to controlling many other NTDs.

Several countries across Latin America and the Caribbean have launched or implemented national plans to control and eliminate NTDs within their borders. In 2014, Colombia became the first country in the world to completely eradicate the disease, and regional multilateral organizations like the Organization of American States, the Pan-American Health Organization, and the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic made strong commitments.

While these are impressive milestones, more work needs to be done to address NTDs within the Yanomami community — as the area they inhabit is regarded as the greatest challenge for interrupting the transmission of the diseases and making Latin America and the Caribbean free of river blindness. Due to the nomadic habits of the Yanomami, as well as their isolated and forested environment, health workers must travel by helicopter or boat to reach them. Many logistical and financial challenges need to be overcome to deliver the required series of treatments.

South-South cooperation can help overcome these obstacles.

At the 67th World Health Assembly in May 2014, Brazil and Venezuela agreed to join efforts to tackle onchocerciasis. Through this commitment, the two countries will provide continuous integrated health care for affected Yanomami communities in the border area. They will work together to train local community health workers and form humanitarian teams that include local residents.

Furthermore, these teams will support the creation of a two-country health system to coordinate efforts from the Brazilian and Venezuelan health ministries to strengthen and integrate public policy to eliminate onchocerciasis in Yanomami communities.

By harnessing their collective experiences and expertise, I am confident both countries will be able to end the unnecessary suffering of this indigenous people — and ultimately help Latin America and the Caribbean see the end of river blindness.

Looking ahead, the post-2015 development agenda dialogue, the BRICS ministers of health meeting and the U.N. South-South cooperation expo offer exceptional opportunities for government officials and development partners to showcase collaboration of developing countries as a critical, sustainable and successful model to address NTDs and other pressing global health and development challenges.

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About the author

  • Mirta roses periago

    Mirta Roses Periago

    Dr. Mirta Roses Periago was director of the Pan American Health Organization from 2003 to 2013. A specialist in epidemiology and infectious diseases, she previously worked for the World Health Organization and is now special envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

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