Today we’ve posted an essay by Rice University rising junior Anjali Bhatla, one of five winners of a student competition on raising awareness of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a group of parasitic, viral and bacterial infections that afflict mainly those living in extreme poverty.
The writing contest and related outreach competition are associated with a Sept. 29-30 Baker Institute conference on NTDs in the U.S. and Mexico. One winning essay will be featured here each week leading up the conference.
The public is invited to attend the Baker Institute NTD conference, but an RSVP is required. Please click here for more information and to register for the event.
Most people have never heard of diseases such as Chagas, elephantiasis, or ascariasis. However, these illnesses are some of the 17 infectious diseases the World Health Organization has categorized as “neglected tropical diseases” (NTDs). NTDs are said to affect the “bottom billion” of the world’s population, or those who are living on less than $1.25 per day. NTDs, which have a high morbidity, have been shown to perpetuate the cycle of poverty due to their ability to impair physical and cognitive development, negatively affect maternal and child health, and socially stigmatize those who are afflicted. Regardless of the disabling economic consequences of NTDs, they have been largely ignored, continuing to persist in the world’s most marginalized populations. Contrary to popular belief, NTDs do not just exist in developing countries, but rather have been shown to also exist in pockets of poverty in developed countries. Given the neglected nature of NTDs, there is plenty that we as students can do to make a difference in the lives of those living with NTDs. Ending the neglect requires three steps: 1) education, 2) awareness, and 3) advocacy.
Education is a key component in impacting the field of NTDs. Through educating ourselves, we can articulate the importance of NTDs to others. This requires understanding what aspects of NTDs contribute to the neglect they continually face. First, they have a high morbidity, rather than high mortality, rendering them “less important” than diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. However, morbidity can have just as disastrous consequences as mortality, and NTDs render those infected chronically disabled. Second, NTDs predominately affect those living in impoverished countries, which makes it difficult to communicate the ramifications of the diseases to individuals with the social and political capital to aid endemic countries. Third, the demographics of infected individuals make it unprofitable for pharmaceutical companies to pursue therapies for NTDs. These factors are the reasons why it is of utmost importance for us as students to educate ourselves about NTDs and communicate the value of preventing these diseases to others.
Engaging the public is imperative if we are to mobilize a movement to end NTDs. This requires using our knowledge to disseminate information on the social and economic consequences of NTDs and the need for the public to address these issues through fund-raising and advocacy. A great way for students to increase awareness of NTDs on campus is to start an END7 chapter at their college. END7 aims to increase awareness of the seven most common NTDs and raise funds for mass drug administration, which can greatly reduce the incidence of NTDs in endemic countries. Through a student organization such as END7, undergraduates can exchange ideas on how to address the health disparities prevalent in endemic countries, engage in dialogue with peers on the importance of addressing NTDs, and implement creative events, programming, and social media campaigns to increase understanding of NTDs at a societal level.
The team that will be spearheading END7 at Rice University, of which I am a member, has discussed a number of creative projects, including depicting stories of patients with NTDs, creating an “NTD week” to educate students on the scientific and social aspects of a different disease each day, and sponsoring a 5K with seven water stops, each featuring information on an individual NTD. Utilizing social media can be a way of reaching a much wider audience, and college students are in a unique position to capitalize on the use of technology. A social media campaign in which a person takes a picture of themselves taking action against NTDs and uses the hashtag #nomoreneglect could be a potential way of incorporating a much larger audience into the conversation. Ultimately we want to increase awareness in order to spur action in others, and I believe a great way of doing this would be to create a service-learning grant program in which students could apply for money to implement a project that addresses NTDs in a creative way. These grants could fund projects such as a student policy competition on NTDs or the creation of curriculum to educate K-12 students on NTDs. By funding student projects around the country and world, each person can have a leadership role in taking action against NTDs.
Ultimately, I believe policy structures need to be utilized in order to address the health disparities that cause NTDs. Low socioeconomic status, inadequate health systems, and the need for proper infrastructure for clean water and sanitation are root causes of NTDs. We need to frame NTDs as a social justice issue in health: a realization that elements of society disproportionately contribute to this public health issue and policy should be drafted to aid those in need. Students can have a profound impact on policy by speaking with their local and national representatives about important issues and advocating for certain pieces of legislation. For example, most of the funding for fighting NTDs comes from developed countries, and policymakers are proposing a cut in funding in the current US budget. By calling representatives, writing letters, and signing petitions, it is possible to convince Congress of the importance of retaining funding for NTDs. As students, our voice is incredibly important, and we have a social responsibility to engage in the political process and advocate for NTDs at the governmental level.
More than one billion of the world’s population is suffering from NTDs, a staggering amount of people to be affected by a group of infections few have heard of. We cannot continue to let this injustice occur, and as the next generation we need to be civically minded students. Addressing the issue of NTDs is critical to improving the health and economic productivity of over one-seventh of the world’s population. Through education, awareness, and advocacy of NTDs, we can drive significant social change and work toward taking the neglect out of neglected tropical diseases.
Anjali Bhatla is a rising junior at Rice University majoring in health sciences and policy studies. Bhatla founded the Rice University chapter of the END7 campaign, which aims to raise awareness and funds for the seven most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). She plans to pursue an M.D./MBA dual degree and ultimately develop and implement policies that help make health care systems more equitable and efficient.
This essay originally appeared on the Baker Institute Blog.