Marginalised peo­ple’s ne­glected diseases

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

When Pope Fran­cis vis­ited the United States in Septem­ber, he de­liv­ered his­toric ad­dresses to the US Congress and the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly. Build­ing on the sen­ti­ments of his en­cycli­cal let­ter,

Fran­cis high­lighted the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­spond to hu­man suf­fer­ing, such as that faced by refugees and those liv­ing in ex­treme poverty, and called for global sol­i­dar­ity in or­der to over­come so­cial ex­clu­sion and in­equal­ity.

The pope’s en­treaties should make us turn our at­ten­tion to ev­ery as­pect of hu­man suf­fer­ing, es­pe­cially those that af­fect the most marginalised peo­ple. One of th­ese is ne­glected trop­i­cal diseases (NTDs). This group of par­a­sitic and re­lated in­fec­tions – in­clud­ing lym­phatic fi­lar­i­a­sis (or ele­phan­ti­a­sis), in­testi­nal worms, and schis­to­so­mi­a­sis – is a scourge of poverty. Th­ese ill­nesses af­flict ap­prox­i­mately 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple per year, in­clud­ing more than 500 mil­lion chil­dren, caus­ing un­told pain and suf­fer­ing and, through lost pro­duc­tiv­ity, con­tribut­ing to the cy­cle of poverty.

Over the past decade, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity has made im­por­tant progress against NTDs. For ex­am­ple, the gen­eros­ity of ma­jor phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, which pro­vide medicines free of charge, has en­abled treat­ment pro­grammes to be scaled up.

But, un­for­tu­nately, de­spite en­cour­ag­ing signs of progress, barely 40% of peo­ple at risk for th­ese pre­ventable diseases re­ceive the medicine they re­quire. Well over a bil­lion peo­ple still do not have ac­cess to treat­ments for po­ten­tially de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tions that cost less than $0.50 per per­son to de­liver. This is not only a se­ri­ous med­i­cal is­sue; it is also a grave moral prob­lem, one that those of us who work with the poor con­front ev­ery day.

The rea­son for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s fail­ure to solve this prob­lem is as sim­ple as it is ugly: for the most part, NTDs af­flict only the poor­est and most over­looked peo­ple. As Fran­cis put it in “There is lit­tle in the way of clear aware­ness of prob­lems which es­pe­cially af­fect the ex­cluded.” In­deed, “they are men­tioned in in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic dis­cus­sions, but one of­ten has the im­pres­sion that their prob­lems are brought up as an af­ter­thought.”

The pope’s his­toric visit to the US came at an im­por­tant time. Congress was fi­nal­is­ing spend­ing bills for fis­cal year 2016, and the UN was com­plet­ing its work on the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs), set­ting tar­gets that will guide de­vel­op­ment pol­icy for the next 15 years. Both or­ga­ni­za­tions would do well to heed the pon­tiff’s words.

It is crit­i­cal that the US con­tinue its strong lead­er­ship on NTDs by main­tain­ing fund­ing for treat­ment pro­grammes in the fed­eral bud­get, this year and in the years to come. As Fran­cis re­minded mem­bers of Congress, “How much has been done in th­ese first years of the third mil­len­nium to raise peo­ple out of ex­treme poverty! I know that you share my con­vic­tion that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of cri­sis and eco­nomic hard­ship a spirit of global sol­i­dar­ity must not be lost.”

On the in­ter­na­tional level, we are en­cour­aged that UN mem­bers were in­spired to as­sign high pri­or­ity to the fight against NTDs in the post-2015 de­vel­op­ment agenda. In par­tic­u­lar, a global indi­ca­tor for NTDs – the “num­ber of peo­ple re­quir­ing in­ter­ven­tions against ne­glected trop­i­cal diseases” – was in­cluded in the SDGs’ mon­i­tor­ing frame­work. This will help to en­sure that NTDs are fi­nally given the at­ten­tion they de­serve over the next 15 years.

One of the most ba­sic steps we can take to over­come what Fran­cis calls “the glob­al­i­sa­tion of in­dif­fer­ence” is to come to­gether in sup­port of de­ci­sive, mea­sur­able ac­tion against NTDs. In­tro­duc­ing a global met­ric to mark our progress on the path to controlling and elim­i­nat­ing them for good is a true demonstration of our sol­i­dar­ity with the poor.

In his UN speech, Fran­cis re­minded us of a cru­cial point: “Above and be­yond our plans and pro­grams, we are deal­ing with real men and women who live, strug­gle and suf­fer, and are of­ten forced to live in great poverty, de­prived of all rights.” If, with all of our tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances and un­prece­dented pri­vate-sec­tor do­na­tions, we can­not change the predica­ment of the poor­est peo­ple for mere pen­nies per per­son, how can we truly ex­pect to over­come the more chal­leng­ing, costlier health and de­vel­op­ment chal­lenges we face?

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