Partnership: The catalyst for neglected tropical disease elimination

02 Feb 2018 
by Phil Downs
| NTDs Technical Director, Sightsavers
Phil Downs, NTDs Technical Director, Sightsavers

Progress towards the control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) has accelerated in recent years. Strong partnerships between governments, NGOs, donors and other civil society members have significantly improved our understanding of these diseases, brought in new donors and allowed resources to be targeted strategically to reach those in need. 

These partnerships have contributed to significant achievements for countries, NGOs and the NTD community at large.  In 2016 alone, over one billion people received treatment for at least one NTD, with the pharmaceutical industry donating a record 1.8 billion treatments, while 2017 saw Sightsavers deliver its one-billionth treatment in the fight against NTDs.

Delivering one billion treatments is no mean feat, and certainly not a task that Sightsavers could have done alone. Underpinning all of our programs, it is partnership that lies at the core of our success. Professor Stephen Hawking could not have been more right when he said, “Collaboration between partners across the world over the last five years has accelerated us closer to the elimination of NTDs than ever before, making it clear that this is one of the most successful health initiatives of recent times.”

“Collaboration between partners across the world over the last five years has accelerated us closer to the elimination of NTDs than ever before, making it clear that this is one of the most successful health initiatives of recent times.

Throughout its history, Sightsavers has worked in partnership with the global NTD community linking multiple development challenges across disability, gender, WASH and global health agendas such as working towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Global forums like the Neglected Tropical Disease NGO Network (NNN) allow us to share knowledge and learn, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs. Additionally, coalitions and networks such as the International Coalition for Trachoma Control (ICTC) allow us to work in concert with other organisations with the same goals, ensuring work is not duplicated and that partners are collaborating rather than competing, and therefore reaching more people in need with greater efficiency.

Partnership is essential at all levels of any disease elimination program. At the highest levels, trachoma partners are working with and supporting ministries of health and national authorities to achieve priorities in their national master plans. One example of this is the Tropical Data service launched in 2016 after the completion of the Global Trachoma Mapping Project. Tropical Data provides countries with information about where trachoma interventions are needed and results from existing programmes. Furthermore, it provides support to Ministries of Health in trachoma endemic countries to run epidemiological surveys. The service is supported by a diverse group of scientific, technological and implementing partners including Sightsavers, International Trachoma Initiative and RTI with the World Health Organization providing scientific oversight.

It is also important that partnerships are established at district and community levels to ensure that programs are acceptable to the communities being served, and to ensure strong uptake of interventions. Working with community leaders is critical to understand the cultures and needs of each community, which can significantly impact the effectiveness of NTD programs.

Key to our NTD programs are the hundreds of thousands of trained Community Directed Distributors such as Baraka, who was nominated by her community in Kudaru, Nigeria, to distribute preventative treatment. Baraka recently delivered our one billionth treatment to seven year old Dorcas and is passionate about continuing to serve her community. Endorsements from community leaders and community directed distributors can alleviate concerns people may have about drug distribution programs, meaning that more people are covered and transmission of disease is reduced.

A critical element of our work is the support of individual donors, trusts and foundations, corporate partners and fellow international development organisations that ensure we have the resources and skill sets required to overcome any challenge. For example, funding from the UK Government’s Department for International Development and USAID has allowed for projects such as the Global Trachoma Mapping Project. Other partnership initiatives, such as the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust Trachoma Initiative and the DFID SAFE Programme, have resulted in the International Coalition for Trachoma Control scaling up interventions to unprecedented levels, reaching more people where they need it, when they need it.

Public-private partnerships have led to remarkable progress against NTDs including the strengthening of health systems that deliver NTD programmes. As a result of 13 of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies pulling together and creating the largest donation program in history, partners have now received more than US$17 billion in donations. 

Working in partnership is not always easy and requires a commitment to working towards a common goal. It can require setting aside organizational ambitions and avoiding competition. However, working together to ensure different stakeholders expertise are used strategically has brought in new donors and allowed the NTD community to scale up activities, which in turn has allowed Sightsavers to reach this huge milestone. While there is more work to be done, new and existing partnerships show what can be achieved when all stakeholders work together.