HIV? Malaria? Tuberculosis? At some point in your life you must have heard about one of these diseases whether it be through increased online exposure, the media or strikingly high mortality rate. Now try leprosy, schistosomiasis or Chagas disease? It is likely you have not and you are not alone. The diseases mentioned are part of a group called Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD).
NTDs are various infectious diseases caused mainly by viral, protozoa, bacterial or Helminth agents found in low-income countries with tropical and subtropical climates where they are most prevalent. The primary contributing factors of NTD involve inadequate housing, poor hygiene and the lack of accessible clean water. Sadly, it is commonplace for individuals living in poverty to be infected by more than one parasite or infection simultaneously. Although unrecognized by many, NTD has killed 534,000 people on estimate and affected more than 1 billion people worldwide; a burden not only to the health and well-being of many but to the economic growth of low-income countries.
But the question is, WHY is it neglected? There are several factors involved, primarily being the social stigma surrounding the diseases. NTDs often cause physical disfigurement, blindness and impaired cognitive development resulting in alienation from family, friends and society. The consequences that occur are tremendous. Individuals are prevented from receiving educational and employment opportunities, health and social service resources and restricted civil and political rights. Nonetheless, poor mental health encapsulates these patients and reinforces the entrapment within the cycle of poverty.
Consequently, NTDs are rarely found in developed countries, affecting the “bottom billion”—individuals who live less than the World Bank poverty figure of $1.25 per day. Due to the lack of a strong political voice, low socio-economic status and profile of the individuals, they are typically disregarded as a problem, rendering them invisible to a helping hand. Furthermore, with a high morbidity rate but a low mortality rate amongst NTDs, the disease group is overlooked and typically forgotten. In other words, countless individuals are suffering from NTDs and endure a low standard of living but very few experience death by NTDs. In comparison to other diseases such as Zika and Ebola- it is not as horrific or infectious.
On another note, many NTDs are highly treatable and can be prevented with accessible medicine and correct healthcare tools. The Gates Foundation founded by Bill and Melinda Gates has been active in this field where they have implemented a new plan of action in the treatment of multiple infectious diseases which include mass drug administration, public-health surveillance and vector control. The effort exerted by The Gates Foundation has made significant progress in the elimination of leprosy in numerous countries, however this is simply not enough.
For people like us, who are privileged enough to have access to numerous healthcare resources, this problem can seem imperceptible and distant. Yet, it is a harrowing reality faced by far too many. The underlying issue in the Research & Development system is highlighted by the insufficient funds that are put towards research in NTD and the fact that there are rarely new drugs being developed. Ultimately, everyone deserves an equal opportunity at living a healthy life. Therefore, it is essential to raise awareness and gather support from the public, in order to pressure policy makers and pharmaceutical companies into making changes to an unjust and biased system that denies people their basic human rights.
Written by: Gigi Liu
Gigi is currently in her second year of undergraduate studies at Western University and serves as one of UAEM Western's Campaign Core Leaders