…And does paying it keep them poor?
That’s the provocative question that underlies a report released Thursday by the World Health Organization: Working to overcome the global impact of neglected tropical diseases.
What’s a “neglected tropical disease,” or NTD for short? In the WHO’s definition, there are 17; they are bacterial, viral and parasitic, and include dengue, rabies, trachoma, leprosy, Chagas, sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis, river blindness and Guinea worm. They not only have different causes, they affect different organs of the body and even occur in different climate zones. But in a hard-hitting speech delivered Thursday in Geneva, WHO director Dr. Margaret Chan underlined what links them all: They are diseases of the devastatingly poor, those who exist on $2 or less per day, and thus until now have largely been ignored. Chan said:
What brings these diseases together is our collective failure as an international community to do a better job of reducing poverty and addressing the diseases that are bred by poverty.
The neglected tropical diseases form a group because of one shared feature: all occur almost exclusively among very poor people living in tropical parts of the world. All thrive in impoverished settings, where housing is often substandard, safe water and sanitation are scarce, environments are filthy, and insects and other vectors are abundant.
Together, these diseases blind, maim, disfigure, disable, and otherwise impair the lives of an estimated 1.2 billion people. Less visibly, they damage internal organs, cause anaemia, retard the growth of children, impair cognitive development, and compromise pregnancy outcomes.
The significant damage to health is frequently compounded by the misery of stigma and social exclusion, especially for women and girls. In many societies, this is a fate worse than death.