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April 19, 2017

Tropical diseases are finally getting the attention they deserve, WHO finds

Immense progress has been made in combating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) over the past decade, with more than a billion people receiving treatment for various conditions in 2015 alone, according to a new report released Wednesday by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“WHO has observed record-breaking progress towards bringing ancient scourges like sleeping sickness and elephantiasis to their knees,” WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan explained in a statement. “Over the past 10 years, millions of people have been rescued from disability and poverty, thanks to one of the most effective global partnerships in modern public health.”

That global partnership was formed in 2007 when several nations agreed to join forced to fight 18 diseases responsible for maiming or killing thousands of people in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world every year, BBC News and the International Business Times said.

Five years after that initial agreement, a meeting was held in London to discuss the initiative’s progress. At that conference, global partners agreed to eradicate 10 of the most common NTDs (including guinea worm, river blindness, and trachoma) by 2020, and since then, pharmaceutical companies have donated seven billion treatments towards those efforts.

Pharmaceutical companies ‘doing their part’ by donating treatments

Since then, more than 550 million people have received preventive treatment for elephantiasis (lymphatic filariasis) and well over 110 million treatments were distributed for river blindness (onchocerciasis), while only 25 human cases of Guinea worm disease were reported in 2016.

Furthermore, the number of new human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) cases have fallen from 37,000 in 1999 to less than 3,000 in 2015, while trachoma (one of the leading causes of blindness) has been eliminated in Mexico, Morocco, and Oman, according to the WHO.

Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the organizations working towards the elimination of NTDs, praised pharmaceutical firms for “doing their part” during an interview with BBC News. He said that such companies were donating treatments at “a phenomenal scale.”

“None of these diseases are getting worse. They are less neglected than they used to be,” Gates said. “We're behind on some of the very ambitious goals which were set in London for 2020,” he added, “but the burden from all these diseases is getting better... this is a fantastic story.”

Additional progress in the fight against NTDs will require meeting global goals for clean water and sanitation in affected areas, said Dr. Dirk Engels, Director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases for the WHO. The organization estimates that at least 660 million people continue to get their water from untreated sources, while around 2.4 billion do not have access to basic sanitation facilities such as toilets and latrines.

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Image credit:  RTI International/Luise Gubb