The following blog is an excerpt of an interview with Dr. Mirta Roses Periago. Dr. Roses was until recently the director of the Pan American Health Organization and currently serves as an NTD Special Envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, an initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
When I completed my tropical medical training in Bahia, Brazil in 1971, I worked alone for two months in a remote village where nearly everyone was infected with schistosomiasis and multiple soil-transmitted helminths (intestinal worms). It was then that I realized that control and even elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) was possible and achievable with an integrated approach.
Most common people — and even doctors and medical students — believe that these diseases have already disappeared. They will likely never see people with these diseases. Others are convinced that there is nothing you can do about those who suffer from NTDs or that it is excessively costly to treat them.
That’s why advocacy is so essential. With all the misinformation, myths, complacency and neglect surrounding these diseases, there is a need for us to turn NTDs into something that is everyone’s concern.
There are many challenges but the end is possible and closer than ever before. My own experiences working with rural communities led me to believe that eliminating NTDs is possible.
I have worked with communities in rural areas of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and in the lowlands of Argentina and Paraguay to eliminate transmission of Chagas disease. Here, we listened and learned from them about their beliefs and approaches to the disease. From there, we worked to bridge the knowledge gap, ensured a good relationship between the national and community levels, and brought an intersectoral approach to ending NTDs by involving schools, health centers, water companies, faith-based organizations, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations.
We know that the projects must stem from and be owned by the affected communities as a key factor to achieve success and sustainability.
The recent passage of a resolution on NTDs by the Organization of American States (OAS) was a great example of this and a very positive development for the region. The OAS is the political body where all heads of government from Latin America and the Caribbean meet and make new commitments to improving human rights, security, democracy and development, by seeking input from all sectors of society. The OAS resolution on NTDs stemmed from PAHO and its member states’ commitment to achieve regional control and elimination of NTDs by 2015.
We’ve come a long way. When we first started to put NTDs on the health agenda for the region in 2000, it was not easy to get people to pay attention to the 2015 deadline for regional control and elimination of NTDs. To encourage progress towards this deadline, we had to change our advocacy and put the emphasis on two points: addressing inequities and accelerating progress.
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is one of the most unequal region in terms of income distribution in the world, and as NTDs are largely a problem for those living in poverty, we started calling attention to the sub-national level and to the geographic areas where the poorest live.
As the 2015 deadline approaches, we need continued public awareness and pressure. We need continuity of interventions at national and local levels. We need advocates whose voices are influential. Finally, we need to further spread the stories of those who suffer from NTDs as well as the success stories, including awards and recognition to the countries and communities who have achieved their elimination.
Decision and opinion makers and social leaders are aware of the externalities, costs and impacts of NTDs on society – both in the present and for the future generations. The funds and time required to reach the goal are manageable and available. The drugs are available and the international community is eager to participate. The private sector is inspired about social responsibility. If we can harness all these elements, the victory is closer than ever. Together we can leave a great legacy: a Region free of NTDs.