By: Alanna Shaikh
On August 21, the World Health Organization declared the Compostela Valley of Davao region, Philippines, to be Filariasis free. Considering that ten years ago filariasis was endemic in the Philippines, that’s an impressive accomplishment.
This 2003 article about poverty and filariasis in the Philippines is a useful reminder that eliminating the disease is about more than the direct disfigurement and injury caused by the diseases. The filariasis-endemic provinces in the Philippines are also its poorest. Eliminating LF in the Compostela Valley therefore represents a sign that the government is paying more attention to its poorest citizens and the removal of a barrier to success on the part of poor people. Giant swollen limbs don’t make gainful employment easy, especially in poor areas with low educational attainment.
The Compostela Valley province – known apparently as Comval by Filipinos – certainly fits that bill. It has an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and mining. The day before the LF announcement was made, it saw flash floods that caused 100 families to evacuate to higher ground. The week after, they had to close a high school because of mass possession by malevolent spirits. As you can guess, being afflicted by a severe disabling disease in this region is going to be a serious impediment to financial success or happiness.
If you are so inclined, you can make a powerful argument for NTDs as a social justice issue. They are caused by poverty, and they lead to poverty. It’s an unusually simple vicious cycle to break, though. A few years of well administered mass drug administration can remove many NTDs from the equation entirely. That doesn’t make poverty easy to tackle, true, but it gets rid of one big factor in its persistence. Compostela valley is a reminder of that. We have at least one proven way to help people get out of poverty – protect them from and cure them of the diseases of the poor.
There are also a few administrative aspects to this which I find interesting. In 2007, the region was down to ten cases per year of filariasis, but that is not filariasis-free. They pushed mass drug administration to get from ten cases to zero, for WHO certification. So being WHO-certified is a powerful motivator, one that gets government health officials to push from good enough to perfect. Considering that filariasis does spread from person to person (via mosquitoes)[i], that’s a good thing. And I didn’t know that the WHO did disease-free certifications of individual regions within a country. It can’t be administratively easy but it’s clearly worth the effort when you consider how much motivation it contributes.
[i] I am slowly arriving at the conclusion that mosquitoes are the bane of human existence. I used to think they were just the bane of my personal existence (mosquitoes find me tasty) but it’s bigger than that. They are a dangerous blight on the human race. No wonder so many scientists get obsessed with genetically engineering them to be less awful.
Alanna Shaikh is an expert in health consulting, writing about global health for UN Dispatch and about international relief and development at Blood & Milk. She also serves as a frequently contributing blogger to ‘End the Neglect.’ The views and opinions expressed by guest bloggers are not necessarily the views and opinions of the Global Network. All opinions expressed here are Alanna’s own and not those of any employer or the US government.