In August, WHO launched a strategy that has the potential to radically change the way we work and help improve the lives of the world’s poorest people and communities.
Over 1 billion people, that's one sixth of the world's population, suffer from neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). These debilitating diseases cause suffering, disability and stigma –blinding trachoma, leprosy and lymphatic filariasis are prominent examples. They persist under conditions of poverty and are concentrated almost exclusively in impoverished populations in the developing world. Some, such as intestinal worms and schistosomiasis, can have a long-term impact on nutrition, brain development and consequently on life chances and economic development.
These diseases are labelled as ‘neglected’ because the people affected – those living in remote, rural settings - lack a strong political voice. NTDs rarely pose a danger to affluent, influential members of society and, as a result, these diseases are not prioritized in national health agendas. The Sustainable Development Goals agenda is calling on us to 'leave no one behind'. To achieve this, people affected by NTDs should become a key focus of development interventions. But the new WHO strategy, which focuses on the role of water, sanitation and hygiene for accelerating and sustaining progress on NTDs, give us some cause for optimism.
What is so important about this new strategy?
Many NTDs are caused by lack of access to water for drinking and personal hygiene, contaminated water, poor housing conditions and poor sanitation. This means that water, sanitation and hygiene (known as WASH) play a critical role in preventing infection. WASH is also important for the treatment and care of people affected by NTDs.
Those of us working in NTD programs have long understood the important role of WASH. The challenge is that these programs often focus on providing medical interventions for treatment and prevention, rather than on addressing the conditions that lead to infection in the first place. Although there have been efforts to engage with agencies that deliver WASH services, these have been met with varying degrees of success.
The WHO strategy is a game-changer because it aims to streamline water, sanitation and hygiene interventions with public health efforts for NTDs. As countries look to WHO for guidance and support this strategy will play a key role at the global level.
Ultimately, this is about not letting down the world’s poorest people. WHO’s strategy is good news for 1 billion of those who have been consistently left behind by the global development agenda.