Shortly after Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan joined the END7 campaign, we travelled together to Odisha (formally known as Orissa), near India’s east coast, to visit the Banamalipur Community Center. Here, the Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA) is providing community-based care for patients suffering from, and the community at risk for, lymphatic filariasis (LF) and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Through the work of volunteers and community health workers, the program currently serves more than 20,000 patients with LF and works in partnership with the government to support the distribution of medicine to everyone in the region to protect them from NTDs.
Abhishek met with patients who were suffering from chronic LF, and listened to their stories and experiences. They spoke of the previous hardship caused by the disease and, through the staff and services, had experienced considerable improvement in their quality of life. Yet, among many of them, there was a tangible sadness, which resulted from the stigma and ostracization caused by the disease: in a community where marriage of children is seen as a fulfillment of parenting, many of their daughters remained unmarried because suitors feared that the diseases was genetic.
LF is just one of the NTDs that can be prevented with annual medication. Once the limbs have swollen, there is no cure for LF but further disability can be prevented with proper care. CASA health workers explained and demonstrated morbidity management and disability prevention for patients with LF, which included proper washing and drying techniques, exercise massage and elevation of limbs. Abhishek was moved to join in, helping the CASA staff to wash the limbs of LF patients. Later, he took albendazole pills, one of the two medicines taken to treat and prevent early LF infection.
This visit only confirmed that there is more work to be done. While we control and eliminate these debilitating diseases, we must also improve the mental and social well-being of those suffering from NTDs. This goes beyond medicine and requires engagement of families, local community organizations, and the media and entertainment industry. With the help of organizations like CASA, and champions like Abhishek, we can take a holistic approach to addressing NTDs.
Of the 1.4 billion people in the world affected by NTDs, more than a third live in India. Global progress on NTDs hinges on India’s efforts and successes.
India is a historic leader in ending some of the most devastating diseases of our time, including smallpox and guinea worm, and most recently, polio. Now, India has the opportunity to achieve another significant public health milestone: the control and elimination of five NTDs.