By Raquel Corona-Parra
The Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region has been leading the way in Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) treatment and elimination efforts. With a list of successes under its belt — most recently the elimination of onchocerciasis from Colombia and the adoption of the Organization of American State’s resolution on NTDs – the LAC region is edging even closer to seeing the end of NTDs while setting an example for the rest of the world.
With this in mind, health officials from the LAC region met this week at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) headquarters in Washington, DC for its 52nd Directing Council. NTDs were highlighted throughout the week and they played an integral role in broader conversations on the post-2015 development agenda, the importance of water and sanitation service improvements, and the social determinants of health. Additionally, a progress report on technical matters including the review of onchocerciasis elimination was approved and accepted. PAHO has repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to ending NTDs, and included these diseases in their Strategic Plan for 2014-2019.
The Global Network was delighted to add to this important work by co-hosting a side event specifically on NTDs on October 2nd. Health officials, and one of our very own NTD Special Envoys, mayor of Guatemala City and former President of Guatemala Álvaro Arzú , highlighted the progress to date as well as the challenges that remain in controlling and eliminating NTDs, particularly the need for increased political and financial support in order to truly make NTDs a public health problem of the past.
Álvaro Arzú explained that political will and commitment from governmental leaders are essential in the fight against NTDs. He expressed that during his presidency, he was not aware that NTDs still afflicted the people of Guatemala, that the burden caused by these diseases is completely preventable, and perhaps most importantly, that highly-cost effective solutions already exist to control and eliminate NTDs. Former President Arzú noted his most important role as NTD Special Envoy is to provide the political voice required for the NTD efforts to be successful.
PAHO Assistant Director, Francisco Becerra Posada, gave the opening address and Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, Secretary of Health Surveillance and Vice-Minister of Health of Brazil, moderated the event. Dr. Marcos Espinal, Director of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis Department at PAHO, shared updates on recent regional and global achievements.
Dr. Espinal stressed that although these achievements are historical accomplishments, challenges do remain. For example, there is a need to address the two remaining foci of onchocerciasis in the Americas — found in the border region of Venezuela and Brazil where this disease continues to plague the Yanomami indigenous population. In addition, fifty million children continue to be at risk for infection from intestinal parasites (soil-transmitted helminths, or STHs), which rob them from the chance of attending school and living healthy lives. Endemic countries need continued support to control and eliminate other NTDs like lymphatic filariasis (LF), trachoma, leprosy, rabies, and schistosomiasis; while Chagas disease, leishmaniansis, malaria and dengue continue to present serious challenges to health officials.
Ambassador Leonidas Rosa Bautista, permanent representative for Honduras at the OAS, stressed that for those who suffer from these diseases, NTDs are both a cause and a consequence of poverty. He also shared details on the national plan to address NTDs in Honduras. Honduras was the first country in the region of the Americas to launch its national plan, which addresses the burden of disease caused by 9 NTDs.
Ferdinando Regalia, Chief of Social Protection and Health Division at the Inter-American Development Bank, shared an overview on the widely successful LAC NTD Initiative demonstration project in Guyana, which we are implementing in collaboration with PAHO. An NTD component addressing LF and STHs was added to the Georgetown Sanitation Improvement Program, demonstrating how NTDs are best addressed through a cross-sectoral, inter-programmatic approach involving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
During the side event, Global Network Managing Director Neeraj Mistry acknowledged the leadership provided by PAHO and IDB in promoting and implementing programs that are helping millions of people throughout the region who suffer from NTDs. He stressed that the lessons learned in the region of the Americas should be shared with other regions of the world also afflicted by NTDs, so that together we can rid millions of people from these diseases.
We are beginning to see increased political will and commitment, and this makes us truly believe that we are closer to seeing the end of NTDs in the Americas!