During the month of October, END7 student supporters are celebrating NTD Success Stories from four countries — Haiti, India, Sierra Leone and the Philippines — that have overcome incredible obstacles to make progress towards NTD control and elimination. This week’s success story comes from Sierra Leone, where inspiring efforts are being made to fight NTDs in the wake of the Ebola epidemic.
Six NTDs are found in all 14 health districts in Sierra Leone, threatening nearly the entire population of the country. Sierra Leone faces many health and development challenges, but the government has exerted strong leadership in the fight against NTDs. By 2004, the national NTD program had successfully mapped the prevalence of targeted NTDs nationwide, and in 2005 they launched a mass drug administration (MDA) campaign to treat every at-risk community with the participation of nearly 30,000 volunteer community drug distributors. Supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health had distributed more than 57 million NTD treatments nationwide by the beginning of 2014. As a result of these efforts, the country was on track to begin the World Health Organization process of verifying the elimination of lymphatic filariasis (LF) in eight of 14 health districts in 2014. Unfortunately, when the West African Ebola epidemic reached Sierra Leone in May of that year, all public health program activities were suspended as the country raced to stop the spread of Ebola. As a result, the Sierra Leone NTD Program was unable to carry out MDA in 2014, interrupting progress towards LF elimination.
But today, the government of Sierra Leone and partner organizations are working hard make up for lost time. In May of 2015, on the heels of nationwide malaria and vaccination campaigns, MDA restarted in Sierra Leone. Just this month, from October ninth to 13th
The relaunch of MDA this year required careful preparation, including refresher training session for community drug distributors and program administrators. Extensive social mobilization campaigns, aimed at educating communities still reeling from the Ebola epidemic about the importance of participating in MDA, were conducted through community meetings and radio spots. As a result of this careful preparation, early indications are that Sierra Leone’s 2015 MDAs have been successful.
The consistent key to Sierra Leone’s inspiring success tackling NTDs before and after the Ebola epidemic has been the leadership and commitment of volunteer community drug distributors. Elected by their communities, these volunteers reach the most remote corners of the country, enabling Sierra Leone to consistently achieve treatment coverage above 75 percent in targeted communities.
Given Sierra Leone’s small geographic size, the strong political support of the government and the commitment of the volunteer community drug distributors who form the backbone of MDA programs, the country is in the unique position to become one of the first countries in Africa to control snail fever and intestinal worms and eliminate river blindness and elephantiasis. Sierra Leone’s NTD program has also successfully demonstrated that MDA can be achieved in highly populated urban settings. But additional support is needed. By integrating NTD treatment with schools and other health programs, millions of people at risk for NTDs can live free of these diseases of poverty and their devastating effects including malnutrition, disability, social stigmatization and a loss of productivity.
Sierra Leone’s progress against NTDs despite the challenges posed by the Ebola epidemic should inspire other countries to redouble their efforts to address these diseases. Now more than ever, support for robust public health efforts like Sierra Leone’s NTD Program is needed to build on this impressive progress. END7 supporters are eager to celebrate Sierra Leone’s progress and look forward to celebrating more milestones as the country moves closer to its ultimate goal of controlling and eliminating NTDs.
It all started a year and a half ago in Guinea, West Africa, when in December 2013, the country reported several cases of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). By March 2014, the outbreak had spread to neighboring Liberia. In May, it reached also Sierra Leone, dealing a huge blow the country’s public health system, including its Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) program.
Sierra Leone is a poor West African country with poor health indicators. A decade earlier, a twelve-year civil war (1991-2002) had devastated the economy and almost brought the entire health care system to a standstill. Nevertheless, the country made progress in revamping its socio-economic situation after the war, and the outlook appeared optimistic. In the health arena, FHI 360 was in the forefront of assisting Sierra Leone in rebuilding its public health system. Through the USAID-funded END in Africa project, FHI 360 has supported a successful integrated NTD program since 2010 in Sierra Leone that targets 7 NTDs: lymphatic filariasis (LF), schistosomiasis (SCH), trachoma, onchocerciasis (oncho) and three soil-transmitted helminthes (STH).
Shortly after the EVD outbreak began in Sierra Leone, all public health program activities were suspended in the country, including those involving NTDs. Consequently, the NTD Program (NTDP) was unable to provide any mass NTD treatments in Sierra Leone in 2014, as the EVD outbreak had spread to all 14 districts in the country, bringing the country to a virtual stand-still.
Almost an entire year passed before the NTDP was able to resume mass NTD treatments. Even now, three of the country’s 14 districts (the Western Urban, Kambia and Port Loko districts) are still working toward containing the outbreak. However, mass drug administration (MDA) for LF, Oncho, STH and SCH (baseline studies have shown that trachoma is not endemic in Sierra Leone) was successfully resumed in May 2015, on the heels of a recent nationwide malaria MDA and vaccination campaign.
Preparing for Sierra Leone’s 2015 NTD MDA
After a year-long interruption in mass treatment, Sierra Leone’s national NTDP and Helen Keller International (HKI), END in Africa’s sub-grantee in Sierra Leone, carefully planned and carried out many preparatory activities prior to embarking on the country’s 2015 NTD MDA campaign. These included conducting:
- An NTD stakeholders meeting to plan the resumption of NTD activities in Sierra Leone (February 2015).
- A national refresher training session for trainers in the Bo district (March 7, 2015).
- A refresher training for peripheral health unit (PHU) district personnel (March 24 – April 4, 2015).
- Social mobilization through radio discussions and community meetings in every community targeted for treatment in 12 provincial districts (April 2015).
- Special advocacy and social mobilization meetings in the 3 districts that failed the last pre-transmission assessment surveys (pre-TAS) for LF conducted in 2013 (Koinadugu, Bombali and Kailahun districts). These meetings targeted paramount, section and village chiefs, people in the community, health workers and community volunteers such as community directed distributors (CDDs).
- Advocacy and social mobilization meetings led by the district health management teams (DHMTs) under the supervision of the NTDP and partner organizations in all 12 provincial districts (May 2015).
- Training for the CDDs, led by PHU staff supervised by DHMTs, the NTDP and partner organizations (May 2015).
Leading by Example to Regain Trust
As the MDA was getting underway in late May 2015, END in Africa Technical Advisor (TA) Dr. Joseph Koroma visited the community of Komende Luyama in the Kenema district, which was conducting MDA for LF, oncho and STH.
The MDA in Komende Luyama was just getting started on the day of my visit, Dr. Koroma said. Only after Chief Musa Lahai, the village chief, and the village’s two community nurses took the NTD treatment, would the people in the community consent to taking the treatment themselves. He added that three members of the district health team who had accompanied him to the village, also took the NTD treatment in front of community members to further convince people to take the treatment.
END in Africa will continue to support HKI and the national NTDP in the process of reestablishing NTD program activities in Sierra Leone, so that the effect of the EVD on NTD control and elimination efforts will be minimal, he said. While there’s a clear need for special social mobilization in order to convince community members to take the NTD treatment, given the country’s terrible experience with EVD, early indications are that Sierra Leone’s 2015 MDA will ultimately be considered a success.
Sierra Leone cannot be declared EVD-free until every health district in the country has no new cases for at least 42 consecutive days. According to the MOH EVD situation report of June 17, 2015, 11 of Sierra Leone’s 14 health districts have not reported any new EVD cases in the past 42 days or longer. They include: Pujehun and Kailahun, with no new cases for over 6 months; Bonthe and Bo, with no new cases for over 5 months; Kenema, Kono, Tonkolili and Moyamba, with no new cases for over 3 months; and Bombali, Koinadugu and Western Rural, with no new cases in 81, 60 and 55 days, respectively. Three districts still intermittently report new EVD cases (1-3 per day): Western Urban district has gone 18 days without a new case, but Kambia and Port Loko each had 1 new confirmed case during reporting period.
Photo: Measuring the District Health Sister of Kenema, Sierra Leone to determine the appropriate dosage of NTD medicine for her. Credit: FHI360
This blog was originally published on the End Neglected Tropical Diseases in Africa blog.
I spent many of my teenage years living in Malawi, enjoying swimming in beautiful Lake Malawi. Wind on to age 30, and I was struggling to get pregnant. Eventually, following illness, I was diagnosed with schistosomiasis by a consultant and colleague at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. I was told that I had probably been infected for a while and that it might be affecting my fertility. So I took praziquantel, the only available drug against the parasite, and soon after I was pregnant. Today my first born daughter is 10 years old. Whilst the links between urogenital schistosomiasis, sub-fertility and HIV have become increasingly well-established over my first born daughter’s life time, a combined and robust health systems action that brings together neglected tropical disease, sexual and reproductive health and HIV communities to address and scale up treatment for urogenital schistosomiasis is sadly lacking.
It is 20 years since the Beijing Women’s Conference and the International Conference Population and Development and the sexual and reproductive community have been taking stock on progress, challenges and future priorities. I attended a research agenda setting meeting on sexual and reproductive health, rights and gender at the WHO on 12th and 13th of January, where we discussed how to best decide priorities for action. Scaling up treatment for urogenital schistosomiasis is arguably a win-win.
The global burden of disease
Schistosomiasis is wide spread and there are two forms of disease, intestinal and urogenital. An estimated 600 million people are at risk of being infected and approximately 200-220 million people are living with schistosomiasis in Africa. Of the people infected with urogenital schistosomiasis it is thought that between about 100 and 120 million suffer from urinary and reproductive tract damage, which also impacts directly with HIV co-infection and sub-fertility in general. Typically many adolescent girls and women exhibit several symptoms in their lower genital tract where overt bleeding and unpleasant discharge, general discomfort and pain during sex can lead to low self-esteem, depression and stigma.
Peter Hotez estimates that globally there are between 67-200 million cases of urogenital schistosomiasis among girls and women. Hotez argues that between 20 million and 150 million girls are affected, possibly making it one of the most common gynaecological conditions in sub-Saharan Africa but unfortunately much under-reported. Urogenital schistosomiasis, as in my experience, also affects fertility and it is estimated to reduce a woman’s reproductive health capacity by up to 75%.
The links between urogenital schistosomiasis in women (female genital schistosomiasis) and HIV are well established. Writing in the Lancet, Pamela Mbabazi and colleagues argue that “Studies support the hypothesis that urogenital schistosomiasis in women and men constitutes a significant risk factor for HIV acquisition due both to local genital tract and global immunological effects”.
Gender, equity and rights
There is remarkable overlap between the maps showing high HIV prevalence in Africa (particularly amongst women and adolescents girls) and those showing cases of female genital schistosomiasis. A complex interplay of biological, social and cultural factors means that young women are particularly vulnerable to HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Gender norms also shape exposure to urogenital schistosomiasis, with women being particularly responsible for activities involving water in many communities (washing, cleaning, collecting water etc). Drawing on work from Ghana, Vlassoff and Manderson have shown that women interact with water significantly more often than men.
What to do?
Several tens of millions of praziquantel tablets are now donated each year by Merck-KGaA for mass drug administration campaigns as a cost-effective method to protect people from the urogenital schistosomiasis. Hotez argues that by preventing female genital schistosomiasis in sexually active women we have an innovative and timely opportunity to reduce and likely much reduce HIV transmission throughout many rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
But in infected communities treatment also needs to start early.
Stoever and colleagues argue that periodic and regular treatment with praziquantel from when children are first infected should prevent the development of genital lesions, which increase HIV risk and cause gynaecological problems. Treatment, however, may need to be started even earlier as the extent and burden of schistosomiasis in pre-school-aged children is being more fully described.
To make progress in this area we need joint action between the HIV, sexual and reproductive health and neglected tropical disease communities. Health workers and communities need more information on the multiple impacts of urogenital schistosomiasis and how it can be treated.
The lack of action to date on urogenital schistosomiasis clearly illustrates the importance of new partnerships and new approaches to scaling up strategies to address neglected tropical diseases. COUNTDOWN, a new initiative in Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia, will be paying close attention to the potential role of close-to-community providers such as drug distributors in providing an interface between communities and health systems. We will also evaluate how to deliver equitable drug delivery for schistosomiasis through the inclusion of preschool-aged-children, out-of-school-children and adults. The Director of COUNTDOWN is helping to co-organise a meeting in South Africa later in the month where several members of COUNTDOWN will also attend. It brings together world leaders in the field of schistosomiasis, HIV and paediatrics to present on the current state and future direction of research on female genital schistosomiasis.
COUNTDOWN is set to foster and to stimulate others in thinking of innovative ways of prompting a synergistic approach to neglected tropical diseases which crosses sectors and builds strength in national health systems.
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Nearly 1.8 billion people require treatment for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Many of these diseases can be easily prevented or treated, yet only 43 percent of people are receiving the treatment they need for the most common NTDs.
In this time of resource scarcity, our collective commitment to the poorest communities should not wane. Yet, the traditional donor-supported model is not a sustainable solution. Increasingly, the global health and development community has been promoting the concept of country ownership as a critical issue of sustainability for country programs. In order to build programs that will live on past the life of a grant or the passing interest of a donor country, affected nations need independent, self-sustaining systems that are domestically organized and funded. This is not country ownership, but rather country leadership.
This country leadership was solidified when health ministers reaffirmed their commitment to the Addis Ababa Commitment on NTDs at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva in May. Nearly two dozen African countries signed this declaration in December 2014, pledging to increase domestic investment, promote multi-sector approaches, encourage adoption of data-driven, long-term strategic plans and ensure mutual support of NTD programs and overall health systems.
This Commitment heralds a new development model, where low- and middle-income countries partner together to invest in and lead their own development with support from the global community.
The Addis Commitment exemplifies the partnership required to create a successful health system through political, financial and technical reciprocity between donor countries and endemic countries. While financial assistance is a critical stepping stone on the road to self-sufficiency, the real value comes from building proficiencies and systems that will last long after the money has been spent.