Emily Conron speaks with patients suffering from lymphatic filariasis in Haiti
During the month of October, END7 student supporters are celebrating NTD Success Stories — spreading the exciting news that many countries around the world have already made incredible progress towards the control and elimination of some NTDs. In recent weeks, there have been many new successes to celebrate, like the announcement two weeks ago that Mexico has become the third country to officially eliminate river blindness, and the exciting news Monday that William Campbell and Satoshi Omura were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery of ivermectin, a drug used to treat and prevent onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis. This month, in addition to these exciting announcements, we want to highlight four countries — Haiti, India, Sierra Leone and the Philippines — that have achieved success fighting NTDs. Each country has overcome their own challenges, ranging from earthquakes to the Ebola epidemic, to make sure communities receive the medicine they need. We think these stories help communicate not just the scope of the suffering caused by NTDs, but the hope we have of ending these diseases for good.
The poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with the highest infant mortality and lowest life expectancy, Haiti is a country with many challenges. But the story of Haiti’s success against NTDs is a powerful reason for hope. Nearly the entire population is at risk of contracting lymphatic filariasis (LF), a mosquito-borne NTD. Caused by thread-like filarial worms that live in the lymphatic system, LF causes painful swelling of the extremities (a condition known as elephantiasis) and genitals (a condition known as hydrocele). The high prevalence of NTDs like LF persists, in large part, because of poor access to water and sanitation. About nine out of ten Haitians in rural areas do not have access to clean, safe water, and almost half lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. These circumstances were compounded in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that killed at least 200,000 people and destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure. Despite these challenges, Haiti is making incredible progress against NTDs and expanding its national NTD control program with the goal of eliminating LF for good.
Under the leadership of the Haitian government, a range of partners have assisted with the annual distribution of drugs to help prevent the spread of four NTDs: LF, whipworm, hookworm and roundworm. A critical aspect of the success of these efforts has been the training of more than 30,000 local community leaders to organize, promote and carry out mass drug administration (MDA), distributing medicine to everyone in at-risk communities.
Until the 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s Neglected Tropical Disease Control Program conducted MDAs only in the areas of the country where LF was most prevalent. The crowded capital city of Port-au-Prince, with relatively low levels of LF infection, was thought to be too difficult a setting to carry out MDA. But after two million people were left homeless following the earthquake, internal migration threatened to redistribute the disease. The Haitian government then decided to focus on national MDA coverage, with the aim of completely eliminating the disease and preventing redistribution.
By late 2011, at least one round of MDA had been conducted in all endemic areas of Haiti except the capital, Port-au-Prince. From November 2011 to February 2012, an MDA was conducted for the first time in the crowded metropolitan area. More than 80% of the population has now been reached with NTD medications, a tremendous accomplishment in a country facing many health and development challenges. In May of 2014, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a major partner of the Haitian government’s NTD program, delivered its one billionth treatment worldwide at a ceremony in Saint-Louis-du-Sud, Haiti, a testament to the country’s commitment and progress in the fight against NTDs.
Haiti is also an example of an integrated approach to combating NTDs, having successfully integrated its LF and soil-transmitted helminth (STH) control programs, which previously operated in separate units at the Ministry of Health. To supplement expanded MDA efforts, the country is also scaling up efforts to address the needs of Haitians already incapacitated by LF and to fortify table salt with medicine to prevent LF, an approach that has helped countries like China eliminate the disease. These efforts are supported by dedicated partners including the Pan American Health Organization, the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), USAID, the University of Notre Dame Haiti Program, IMA World Health and CBM.
Haiti is one of just four countries in the Americas where LF remains endemic, accounting for 80% of people at risk of the disease in the region. If the country can succeed in their effort to eliminate LF by 2020, it would be a major milestone in global efforts to end the disease. As Dr. Patrick Lammie, an immunologist with the CDC, told NPR, “If a country like Haiti, with all of the challenges that they’ve faced over the last few years, is able to achieve full national coverage, I think that is an important example for other countries, which are struggling to scale up their programs as well.”
Certainly, a country that has not just maintained, but expanded efforts against NTDs in the face of political instability and crippling natural disasters is a powerful example to the rest of the world. Haiti’s success demonstrates the power of country ownership, government leadership, partnerships and integrated and holistic public health programs in the fight against NTDs.
END7 supporters are excited to celebrate Haiti’s unfolding success story, a narrative of perseverance in the face of challenges — and the first of four inspiring NTD Success Stories in a month that’s already offered many reasons to celebrate!