By Helen Hamilton, policy advisor for neglected tropical diseases at Sightsavers
The Rio +20 conference, which took place last week in Brazil to discuss how the world can develop more sustainably, generated a lot of discussion not just about the future that poor and marginalised people want but that they need.
I was at the conference to represent Sightsavers and flag the future we want in terms of seeing neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) eliminated. Following three long days of discussions on water, climate change and other sustainable development topics to advocate for this group of debilitating diseases, I left feeling there were some hopeful signs.
The final outcome document from the conference entitled The future we want, which will be used to guide the process of designing and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also indicated a huge step forward for those who have been working to raise the profile, and therefore increase support for, these neglected diseases. For the first time, NTDs have been recognised as an important disease group to address alongside malaria, tuberculosis and also non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
From a sector point of view too there was hope. Water permeated every discussion at Rio+20; farming, green and sustainable energy, healthy cities and poverty eradication. The need for safe water was intrinsic. Despite progress on Millennium Development Goal 7; the target that focusses on safe drinking water and basic sanitation, 1.2 billion people worldwide still lack access to safe water.
However with 2.5 billion people not having access to adequate sanitation it was the evolution from just discussing the right to access water to discussing water AND sanitation that was so refreshing! Approaching the sustainability of these together will really help us in the fight against the nine NTDs that are impacted by water and sanitation issues. It is fundamental in the drive to reach elimination stage for NTDs such as trachoma and guinea worm as opposed to just controlling them.
I have seen for myself in Mali the impact the WHO’s SAFE strategy has on tackling trachoma at a community level. I saw measures ranging from ensuring the community members of Tienfala had access to clean water to wash their faces, to the use of latrines; which improves sanitation and reduces the fly population which can help with the spread of the disease. These components are just as vital as the regular antibiotic distributions in terms of breaking the cycle of infection. This is why I was delighted by the focus the conference seemed to have on people leading a good sustainable lifestyle and not just having their basic needs met.
It is, of course the beginning of many discussions on how this is made a reality, and we are a long way off from making water AND sanitation accessible to everyone, but it is reassuring to see NTDs and the issues that impact them making their way up the development agenda. As Margaret Chan stated in her address to the WHA last month, NTDs are fast becoming a “Cinderella” style “rags to riches story”.