All Roads Lead to Rome: the Path to the Vatican Conference on NTDs
The International Conference on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and rare diseases was held at the Vatican from November 10-12, 2016. A report from the meeting can be found online.
The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers is hosting an International Conference on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and rare diseases November 10-12, 2016 at the Vatican, “Towards a Culture of Health that is Welcoming and Supportive at the Service of People with Rare and Neglected Pathologies.” Sabin President Dr. Peter Hotez will deliver the opening keynote on NTDs, a patient with the NTD lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) has been invited to offer a reflection and the event will end with an audience of more than 5,000 conference participants, patients, and family members with Pope Francis in Paul VI Hall.
The International Conference is expected to attract more than 500 participants from around the world, including many senior Catholic officials as well as leading NTD researchers and policymakers, to discuss both treatment and research issues related to NTDs and rare diseases. Notable speakers include Beatrice Lorenzin, the Minister of Health of Italy; Anthony Tersigni, CEO of Ascension, the world's largest Catholic health system; and Ariel Pablos-Méndez, USAID Assistant Administrator for Global Health.
Sabin is grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the Pontifical Council to plan this exciting event. Attention by Pope Francis and other religious leaders could make a tremendous impact on the NTD control and elimination movement. As the world’s largest provider of healthcare services, the Catholic Church could play a significant role in this effort. A coordinated push by religious leaders and faith-based institutions to support the global effort to control and eliminate these diseases would improve the lives and safeguard the dignity of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.
We’ve all heard the proverb “All roads lead to Rome” – the simple truth that many approaches can lead to one outcome. On November 10, three years of dialogue between Sabin and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers – along many different paths – will culminate in Rome at this first-of-its kind conference.
Sabin cultivates partnerships across many spheres to advance the fight against infectious and neglected diseases. In 2013, Sabin established a relationship with the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, created by Pope John Paul II in 1985 to coordinate and promote the health care work undertaken by the Church around the world and monitor national and international health care efforts to determine their pastoral repercussions for the Church. Sabin experts began meeting with leadership of the Pontifical Council, including its late President, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, and Under-Secretary, Father Augusto Chendi, in Rome to discuss the global NTD control and elimination effort and the critical role of the Catholic Church in providing healthcare and other social services around the world, particularly in poor communities at risk of NTDs. At the request of the Pontifical Council, Sabin prepared a concept note outlining a vision of four specific contributions the Church could make to advance the NTD effort: raising awareness of the burden of NTDs, both internationally to policy makers and locally within endemic countries; ministering to patients and their families to reduce stigma and fight discrimination; directly supporting NTD treatment and prevention programs through the Church’s vast network of hospitals, health centers, schools and parishes; and mobilizing resources from Catholic institutions and individuals and public investment by world leaders to support NTD treatment and advance research.
Sabin continued an exciting dialogue with Church leaders into 2014, facilitating an invitation to the president of the Pontifical Council, Archbishop Zimowski, to speak at the April 2014 launch of the second progress report of the London Declaration on NTDs at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, hosted by Uniting to Combat NTDs. While Archbishop Zimowski was unable to attend, he wrote a letter to conference participants at the event which stated:
“The Church, in her message of evanglisation, which is also expressed in capillary socio/health-care action in regions of the world that are still afflicted by neglected diseases, perceives how urgent it is, however, to make strengths converge and to animate public opinion in the face of pathologies which in less advanced countries are still endemic and constitute some of the causes that make their civil, social and economic development difficult.
“This shouldering of responsibility is seen as being urgent by this Pontifical Council of the Holy See as well, and to such an extent that is has been envisaged for the month of May in 2015 an international scientific congress, organized in the Vatican, which will specifically address the subject of ‘Rare and Neglected Diseases,’ ‘Diseases of Solidarity.’
“…While I in my official capacity…wish all the participants fruitful deliberations in the work that awaits you, I also hereby affirm that the results that you achieve will be held in due consideration, as will the experiences that you represent, in preparing for the next international scientific congress envisaged for next year in the Vatican, thereby ensuring a fruitful cooperation.”
Encouraged by the Pontifical Council’s decision to host an international conference to address NTDs, Sabin began advancing a faith-based message about NTDs in the media, including in a TIME op-ed entitled “White House, Congress Should Remember Pope Francis During Budget Process.” Then, ahead of Pope Francis’ historic address to the U.S. Congress in September of 2015, Sabin hosted a reception on Capitol Hill to celebrate the bipartisan commitment of the U.S. government in the fight against NTDs and build further support for the NTD cause among Members of Congress, the Administration, the broader policy community, private sector partners and Catholic leaders. Speakers at the “Call to Compassion” event included Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), member of the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and NTDs; Reverend Thomas Streit, C.S.C., Founder of the University of Notre Dame Haiti Program; Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez, Assistant Administrator for Global Health and Child and Maternal Survival Coordinator at USAID; and Dr. Leonard Friedland, Vice President and Director of Scientific Affairs and Public Health for Vaccines in North America at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). Reverend Pat Conroy, S.J., Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, concluded the program with a benediction.
The next week, in his speech to Congress, Pope Francis reflected, “How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! 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] the fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes.”
Building on this speech, and another delivered by Pope Francis to the United Nations General Assembly just before the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Sabin CEO Michael W. Marine and Catholic Relief Services CEO Carolyn Woo co-authored an op-ed calling for the U.N. to formally adopt a global indicator for NTDs in the SDGs’ monitoring framework as a “demonstration of our solidarity with the poor.” Two weeks later, in a speech to U.N. officials in Kenya, Pope Francis explicitly called for international agreements to be shaped around the needs of the poor: “Certain health issues, like the elimination of malaria and tuberculosis, treatment of so-called orphan diseases, and neglected sectors of tropical medicine, require urgent political attention, above and beyond all other commercial or political interests.”
Sabin’s dialogue with the Pontifical Council continued into 2016 as planning for the conference, which had been rescheduled to November, accelerated. After a long battle with cancer, Archbishop Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council, passed away in July. He will be remembered as a compassionate leader in the effort to improve global health. His commitment to addressing the health needs of the poor was integral to the decision to host the International Conference. It is clear that he was animated by the “missionary impulse” Pope Francis called the Church to rediscover in Evangelii Gaudium, to “go forth to everyone without exception…but above all the poor and sick” . Msgr. Zimowski’s words and actions as the President of the Pontifical Council were an inspiration to all seeking to respond to this challege.
In August, Pope Francis announced the creation of a new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which will incorporate the Pontifical Councils of Justice and Peace, “Cor Unum”, Health Care Workers, and Migrants and Itinerant Peoples. This dicastery, to be led by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, will launch January 1, 2017, after which the four councils it replaces will cease their duties as separate bodies. Thus, the XXXI International Conference will be one of the final events hosted by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, though the new Dicastery is expected to prioritize global health issues like NTDs through its new structure.
Sabin is grateful to have played a part in the planning of this historic event. As one of the world’s largest healthcare providers, the Catholic Church is in a unique position to leverage its influence in service of the global effort to control and eliminate NTDs by expanding treatment coverage, advancing research and development and ensuring the basic rights and dignity of patients. The International Conference has the potential to bring new partners, unique commitments, and renewed energy to the effort to end NTDs – for good.