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Powerful Testimonies Urge Action on Neglected Tropical Diseases

 

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Earlier this month, The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, chaired by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), conducted a hearing on Global Health Programs highlighting U.S. investments in significant  global health efforts  such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Global Fund).

Powerful testimonies were delivered from dedicated global health advocates, including Ambassador-at-Large Deborah L. Birx, M.D., Coordinator of the United States Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy, U.S. Department of State; Dr. Mark Dybul, Executive Director, The Global Fund; Sir Elton John, Founder, Elton John AIDS Foundation; and Dr. Rick Warren, Pastor, Saddleback Church.

While discussing the financial and programmatic difficulties of working to combat diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, Ranking Member Leahy (D-VT) underscored the importance of investing in prevention stating that “Many of these diseases can be prevented for just a few dollars.” As we have learned from the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, investing in preventative measures is much more cost-effective than attempting to contain a major outbreak. The Senator added:

“Very few Americans suffer from malaria, polio, Dengue fever, or river blindness. Can you imagine if they did? You’d have people lined up out here saying ‘What are you spending, let’s do something about it!’…This goes beyond politics or economics…we can do better.”

Dengue fever and river blindness are neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) transmitted to humans through bites of infected blackflies and mosquitoes, respectively. Dengue fever can cause severe joint, muscle and bone pain, and river blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, can lead to visual impairment and permanent blindness. Globally, 1.9 billion people are at risk for NTDs. These diseases result in severe physical disabilities and they prevent children from attending school or adults from working – resulting in an endless cycle of economic hardship.

By adding NTDs to the conversation, Sen. Leahy drew attention to a critical link between NTDs and other infectious diseases such as malaria, for example. In many parts of the world, NTDs are a result of inadequate water supply, limited access to sanitation facilities and poor hygiene. Mosquitoes breed in areas with stagnant water and can transmit not only malaria, but also NTDs including dengue fever, lymphatic filariasis and chikungunya.

Synergies such as these stress the importance of partnerships and building more resilient health systems. One way that initiatives such as the Global Fund and PEPFAR work to strengthen health systems in countries and communities is by investing in community health workers.

The Global Network thanks Chairman Graham and Sen. Leahy for holding this productive hearing. The testimonies from this panel of experts underscore the critical role the U.S. Government plays in combating global health issues. Because we have made such enormous strides in the fight against many infectious diseases, including NTDs, we cannot risk reversing the results we have achieved so far.  Those living in extreme poverty around the world are counting on our help.


Funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Neglected Tropical Disease (USAID’s NTD) Program is at risk due to the President’s proposed budget of $86.5 million for FY2016 – a $13.5 million drop  from the $100 million allocated by Congress for FY2014 and FY2015. The USAID NTD Program is an extremely successful and cost-effective public-private partnership that has reached more than 465 million individuals in 25 countries with life-saving treatments.

The Global Network’s END7 campaign is taking action against the proposed budget cuts with its “Call to Action” petition. To get involved and speak out, add your name here.

National Science Academies Urge G7 Leaders to Address NTDs

 

 

In advance of every G7 summit, the national science academies of the G7 countries prepare policy statements on the priority issues identified by the G7 host country. This year, the national science academies delivered statements on neglected tropical diseases, antibiotic resistance, and the future of the ocean.

In the statement on NTDs, they note that progress on NTDs “would be a major step towards alleviating poverty.”

NTDs affect the world’s poorest people and place an economic burden on low and middle-income countries. The academies called on G7 leaders to support efforts to reach WHO control and elimination targets by 2020:

“In principle, NTDs are preventable, treatable, controllable and some even eradicable. Moreover, most interventions against NTDs are highly cost-effective. To make progress toward preventing, controlling and eliminating NTDs, the G7 Academies of Sciences call for: (1) increasing efforts to empower and build capacity in affected countries to deal with these diseases, (2) intensifying research on NTDs, (3) developing and delivering affordable and accessible treatments, and (4) NTDs to be fully accounted for in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Much more needs to be done with a much greater urgency to reach the 2020 targets for all major NTDs. The specificity of diseases as well as the likely adverse impacts of severe climate events, risks of conflicts, increasing mobility/migration, and political instability need to be taken into account when developing strategies for tackling the NTD challenges. NTDs should be fully accounted for in the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who carries the G7 Presidency this year, invited representatives of the national science academies to a G7 dialogue forum to share their scientific expertise in advance of the 2015 G7 Summit, to be held in June in Schloss Elmau, Bavaria. The event was hosted by Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Science.

In his keynote speech at the G7 Dialogue Forum Science Conference on April 30th, Professor David Molyneux addressed NTDs and the work still needed to achieve the control and elimination goals outlined at the London Declaration in 2012.  Professor Molyneux is a Sabin partner and professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine where NTDs are a major focus of research. In his speech, he highlighted the need for increased aid to combat NTDs — only 0.6% of overseas development assistance is allocated to NTDs.

Professor Molyneux said that policy makers must be convinced that NTDs are the markers of poverty, that control of these diseases reflect the capacity of health systems to ensure healthier communities and by default reduce the burden of poverty. He argued that addressing the “chronic pandemic of NTDs” requires capacity at all levels across the broad spectrum of health sciences.

After receiving the statement from the academies, Chancellor Merkel responded with a call to strengthen the WHO’s ability to combat disease. “I will attend the World Health Assembly in May, and neglected tropical diseases are on the agenda this year. This will hopefully help to encourage Member States to persevere in the fight against these terrible diseases, especially since simple treatments and measures are often enough to prevent them.”

As the G7 Summit approaches, we hope world leaders heed the national science academies’ call to develop and deliver affordable and accessible treatments for NTDs, and support multilateral efforts to address NTDs as part of the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda.

Can We Nudge the Budget? Our Experience at the END7 Student Advocacy Day

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By Anjali Bhatla, Cyrus Ghaznavi and Sri Gopakumar
Rice University Undergraduates 

On a bright spring morning in Washington, D.C., we stood outside the U.S. Capitol in the middle of a whirlwind, 32-hour trip from Houston, Texas.  As we stood in the clearance line to enter the Capitol Visitors Center, we reviewed our materials to prepare for a day of meetings with congressional offices to advocate for a global health issue that each of us has become very passionate about. When we were invited by the Global Network to attend the first-ever END7 Student Advocacy Day on April 22, we realized that this would be a rare opportunity for us to get involved with the political process surrounding the federal budget  and lend our voice in support of neglected tropical disease (NTD) treatment.

This semester, we founded a campus chapter of the END7 campaign at Rice University after we were all separately introduced to the issue of NTDs by Dr. Peter Hotez, President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the founding dean of the Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston and a Baker Institute Fellow in Disease and Poverty at Rice University. Whether it was through working for Dr. Hotez or taking his seminar class, the three of us have been deeply moved by what he has taught us about NTDs – an important but neglected global health issue.

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NTDs have been shown to perpetuate the cycle of poverty by impairing physical and cognitive development, decreasing economic productivity, negatively affecting maternal and child health, and socially stigmatizing those that are afflicted. END7 at Rice is taking a three-pronged approach to addressing the need for greater investment in NTD prevention and treatment through committees focused on marketing, fundraising and advocacy. To increase awareness of NTDs in our community, we plan to implement creative events, programming and social media campaigns across campus.  And, through our END7 chapter, we hope to facilitate an exchange of ideas on how to address health disparities in the developing world.

We are particularly concerned about the funding gap for NTD treatment programs. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Neglected Tropical Disease program has been essential in providing NTD treatments around the world – more than 1.2 billion to date – but proposed cuts to the program’s funding in the fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget could stifle and potentially reverse the progress already made by the program to the NTD elimination effort. Having just started Rice’s END7 chapter, we decided that going to DC would teach us valuable lessons we could bring back to Houston and provide us with a greater context for our chapter’s goals.

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On the morning of the event, we gathered in a wood-paneled conference room in the Capitol Visitors Center and received a briefing on the global effort against NTDs from leaders of the Global Network, USAID, RTI International and WASH Advocates. Then we split into small groups for our afternoon meetings in congressional offices with each person taking on a particular role. One student would provide some background for their involvement in the END7 campaign: “I’ve been able to travel to countries including Haiti and India, where NTDs are endemic, and have seen firsthand the socioeconomic impacts these diseases have.” Another would carefully lay out the key statistics: “1 in 6 people are infected with an NTD!…more than one billion people in all!…every $1 of taxpayer funding leverages $26 worth of donated drugs, an incredible return on investment!” A third student would paint a holistic picture of the budgetary issue at hand and hammer in the final message: “Funding the USAID NTD Program is critical to solving this global health problem. Maintaining our momentum is essential and we don’t want to lose the good work we’ve done.” Then we answered questions about NTDs and USAID’s work to educate our leaders and their staff about this key global health issue. We concluded our meetings by inviting members of Congress to join either the Senate Caucus on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases or the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and NTDs (one U.S. Representative joined that same day!) and delivering student signatures on END7’s petition to increase NTD funding to $125 million in FY 2016. (We had collected nearly 200 signatures on our campus alone!)

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At the end of the day, our time on the Hill brought the conversation surrounding NTDs alive for us in a new way. We learned so much during our time in Washington that we didn’t mind missing a few classes (even though finals were just around the corner!). Advocating alongside leaders of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases and fellow student supporters of the END7 campaign in meetings in congressional offices opened our eyes to the importance of public policy in the fight against NTDs. As aspiring physicians, we hope to become civically minded professionals who can communicate information effectively to our lawmakers. By engaging in the political process during the END7 Student Advocacy Day, we learned the importance of the student voice in advocating for NTD treatment. We genuinely hope that our message was well-received: the USAID NTD program budget is a best buy in global health and increased funding is needed to allow the progress of USAID’s NTD program to continue. We are excited to see that the 24 Hill meetings students participated in on April 22 have already made an impact, with the addition of a new representative to the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and NTDs and positive signs of increased support from key leaders. As students around the country mobilize around this cause, we hope the U.S. government takes a leading role in prioritizing NTD funding in the FY2016 budget and contributes crucial resources toward the NTD fight. We hope to return to D.C. next year to continue engaging in the political process as citizens, students and future medical professionals dedicated to seeing the end of NTDs.

You can support END7’s advocacy to protect and increase the USAID NTD budget by sending a message to your Senator. Learn more in our infographic and this Buzzfeed post created by student supporters and be sure to check out the END7 Student Advisory Board’s op-ed in the Hill!