Tropical Data is supporting countries to bring health for all

06 Apr 2018 
by Emma Harding-Esch
| Chief Scientist, Tropical Data
Emma Harding-Esch, Chief Scientist, Tropical Data

On 7 April 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) held its first World Health Assembly. The assembly was attended by 46 member states committed to WHOs founding principle, that "all people should be able to realize their right to the highest possible level of health". “Health for all” has been WHO’s guiding vision for more than seven decades and as we mark World Health Day 2018,  193 countries are continuing this commitment under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) further guided by the principles of 'no one left behind', and driving progress towards the achievement of Universal Health Coverage (UHC).

Launched in July 2016, Tropical Data is a service that provides governments with real time data about disease prevalence for trachoma and an increasing number of other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Accurate information is essential for the achievement of UHC as it informs program planning and policies that allow interventions to be delivered where they are needed, when they are needed. As NTDs affect the most remote and marginalized communities, Tropical Data helps reach the furthest behind first - another priority of the SDGs.

Tropical Data uses the same standardised training and survey methodologies that were used in the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP) - the world's largest ever infectious disease survey. GTMP collected data from 2.6 million people in 29 countries from 2012 - 2016 using android technology to make data collection more accurate, efficient and secure. The standardised approach ensures that results can be compared across different countries, which allows health ministries to make better decisions both within and between countries, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of health programs.

Since its inception, Tropical Data has made a significant contribution to trachoma elimination programs. It has supported 648 surveys in 28 countries examining nearly 2.1 million people. This represents 82% of all trachoma surveys recorded by WHO since 2016. Survey results have provided the evidence for nearly 40 million antibiotic treatments to be distributed across endemic areas through the Pfizer Inc. drug donation program, supporting UHC’s objective to deliver effective medicines to all people in need without financial burden. Julie Jenson, Director Corporate Responsibility, Pfizer Inc, recently commented “Because of Tropical Data, Pfizer can continue to scale-up drug donations. The surveys can also detect and target gaps in funding, further supporting the growth of coverage." 

Importantly, Tropical Data has also confirmed that antibiotics were not needed in 91 districts, that antibiotics could be stopped in 217 districts and the service is now exploring the need for surveys in areas suspected to be endemic in places like Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Namibia, Nauru and Tonga. 

A central component of Tropical Data is giving health ministries full ownership of the data and process and data. This includes delivery and funding of in-country implementation, including project planning, training, fieldwork and results, while the Tropical Data service provides ongoing support with epidemiology, trainings, survey tools, scientific oversight, data processing and data reviews. This supportive approach builds capacity among national program staff and strengthens health systems while increasing the likelihood that survey results are acted upon. 

Health ministries can also share survey data on the Trachoma Atlas, an open-access platform which shows the current distribution of trachoma, highlighting where surveys are still needed, and providing information for use in operational research. 

In addition to providing up to date trachoma prevalence data, Tropical Data is increasingly being asked to support surveys to determine the burden of other NTDs. A new partnership between Tropical Data and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), in coordination with regional ministries of health, has seen an expansion of the service to include surveys of schistosomiasis. PAHO is also looking to extend its use to collect data from mass drug administration (MDA), and MDA coverage surveys for several other NTDs, such as lymphatic filariasis.

The service has been widely welcomed by partners in NTD endemic countries. Martha Saboya, Advisor on Neglected Infectious Diseases Epidemiology from PAHO recently commented, "Tropical Data is improving and expediting data collection, cleaning and analysis. I look forward to seeing the continued uptake of the service and the integration of more diseases, which will help streamline training, survey and data management processes, promote best practice learnings and maximize existing resources for greater public health impact."

Robust data are essential to achieve health for all. Data enables ministries to effectively plan health programs, accurately track progress and performance, evaluate impact, and ensure accountability at all levels. As partners around the world celebrate World Health Day, the 70th anniversary of the World Health Assembly and 20-years since it adopted resolution 51.11 targeting trachoma for elimination as a public health problem by 2020, let’s recognize the tools needed to achieve UHC. The comprehensive service Tropical Data provides has been instrumental to the global program to eliminate trachoma. It has the potential to shape how national programs tackle other NTDs and is a valuable tool for reaching the furthest behind first.

The team behind Tropical Data is a consortium of scientific, technological and implementing partners. The International Trachoma Initiative provides the core data management service. RTI advises on the system technology and supports the super trainings. Sightsavers provides project management, documentation, budgeting and training packages. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine provides scientific oversight. The World Health Organization sets standards and protects country interests.