Tomorrow, February 20th, 2010, marks the second annual World Day of Social Justice. This event was created in 2007 to “consolidate further the efforts of the international community in poverty eradication and in promoting full employment and decent work, gender equality and access to social well-being and justice for all.” There are many ways to work towards those goals, but one of the most effective, and cost effective, is the elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
To eradicate poverty and promote full employment, NTD treatment is vital in the developing world. If a person is suffering from lymphatic filariasis and has severely swollen limbs to the point of being unable to work, or have contracted trachoma or onchocerciasis and gone blind, it hinders their ability to earn a living. Infections from the soil-transmitted helminth family of parasites cause anemia and nutrient deficiencies in children, stunting their physical and mental development. One of these parasites, roundworm, can decrease the future earnings potential of an infected child by 43%. However, deworming not only prevents the developmental disabilities created by infection, but also has been found to decrease school absenteeism by 25%. If future generations are to break free of the vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment, then NTD treatment must be included in any efforts.
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Wheeler
NTDs also play heavily into issues of gender equality, as they tend to disproportionately affect women. In areas of great gender inequality, the social stigmas attached to the disfigurement, morbidity, and disability caused by NTDs tend to be especially isolating and ostracizing for women. Women who have suffered from disfiguring NTDs such as lymphatic filariasis or onchoerciasis have lost their jobs, lost their families, and even been prevented from seeking medical attention. Further, NTDs pose special risks to women sexually and reproductively. NTD infections cause women in particular to be especially at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Genital sores on women caused by schistosomiasis have been shown to increase the risk of HIV infection threefold. Both schistosomiasis and roundworm have been linked to maternal anemia during pregnancy, leading to complications, as well as low birth weight and sterility. For gender equality to be reached, these diseases which disproportionately affect women must be dealt with.
Those two points together make a strong case for NTD treatment, but there’s even more to be said in terms of social well-being and justice. Nations which are unstable or volatile, such as Pakistan, Niger, or Sudan, tend to have a high NTD disease burden. That is no coincidence. NTDs breed the poverty and inequality that give rise to political instability and violence. NTD treatment would not only heal the sick and help the poor, but it would help to stabilize nations and entire regions.
So tomorrow, as you enjoy your Saturday, remember those less fortunate than you. Remember those for whom survival is a daily struggle, poverty an unavoidable fact of life, and political instability and violence an ever present threat. Then consider that treatment for the seven most common NTDs can be provided for only 50 cents a year per person. Consider all the good that can be done for such a small price.
The UN created World Day of Social Justice with an eye towards a better future. For that to be accomplished, NTD treatment must be part of the plan.