The International Conference on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and rare diseases was held from November 10-12, 2016 at the Vatican. A report from the meeting can be found online.

On November 10, Sabin Vaccine Institute President Dr. Peter Hotez will give the keynote address on NTDs at the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers’ XXXI International Conference, focused this year on NTDs and rare diseases. The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers was established by Pope John Paul II to help coordinate the Vatican’s health care related activities. Its work is rooted in the Church’s mission to care for the sick by dedicating its efforts to help health care workers and those serving the sick and suffering. The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers’ XXXI International Conference will be one of its capstone events, as the Council will be assumed by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development on January 1, 2017.     

The conference is expected to attract more than 500 participants from around the world, including many senior Catholic officials, leading NTD researchers and policymakers from the Italian Ministry of Health to the US Agency for International Development, to discuss the topic, “Towards a Culture of Health that is Welcoming and Supportive at the Service of People with Rare and Neglected Pathologies.” Sabin Vaccine Institute President Dr. Peter Hotez will deliver the opening keynote, an NTD patient has been invited to offer a reflection and the conference will end with an audience with Pope Francis.

The NTD control and elimination effort is driven by many of the same principles that provide the foundation of the Catholic Church’s social mission and that of many of the world’s faith traditions: the life and dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and the commitment to the common good.

Dr. Hotez has written about the geographical correlation between NTDs and major world religions. In 2011, Dr. Hotez wrote an editorial in PLoS NTDs titled “Neglected Tropical Diseases in the Catholic World,” which quantified the burden of NTDs in Catholic-majority countries. Dr. Hotez analyzed 22 countries with the highest proportions of Catholics, constituting three quarters of the world’s Catholics. Though Catholics represent 12% of the world’s population, Catholic-majority countries account for 22% of Ascariasis, 28% of Trichuriasis, 21% of Hookworm, 14-16% of Schistosomiasis, and nearly 100% of Chagas disease and Human African Trypsanosomiasis.

In 2013, during the papal conclave to elect Pope Francis, Dr. Hotez issued another clarion call to the Catholic Church. The editorial, titled “Neglected Tropical Diseases and the New Pope,” urged the next pope to address NTDs given their impact on the world’s Catholics. Referencing the USAID and DFID NTD treatment programs, Dr. Hotez stated that “there is no reason why the Catholic Church cannot promote a similar low-cost program for many of the worst-affected Catholic-majority countries.” If the pope planned to make commitments to the poor, he wrote, then he ought to make NTD elimination efforts a priority of his pontificate.

In the following year, Dr. Hotez published an analysis on the geographical ties between NTDs and Christianity. This correlation has been shaped by geographical shifts in the geographic concentration of Christianity over the last century. In 1910, two-thirds of Christians lived in Europe. Today, only one quarter of Christians live in Europe and 61% live in the Global South. Today, eight of the highest Christian-proportion countries, about 13% of the world’s population, account for one third of the children who require annual deworming medication and one half of individuals who require schistosomiasis chemotherapy. Overall, up to one billion Christians are highly vulnerable to NTDs.

Expanding on this finding, in July, Dr. Hotez published his most recent article on this topic: “The World’s Great Religions and Their Neglected Tropical Diseases.” In this piece, Dr. Hotez analyzed the prevalence of NTDs in Christian, Muslim, and Hindu majority countries. Taken together, these countries represent around 90% of children requiring both MDA for helminth infections and treatment for lymphatic filariasis.

“I’m deeply appreciative of the honor to present at the Vatican and to the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers,” said Hotez. “This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight NTDs, or what I sometimes call ‘the most important diseases you’ve never heard of.’ These are diseases borne of poverty and conflict – two challenges at the heart of the social mission of the Catholic Church. The Church, with its unique position of influence and vast network of health care service, has the potential to advance the fight against NTDs in a number of key ways. I look forward to discussing how we can best work together to accelerate the elimination and control of the world’s NTDs.”

The high concentration of NTDs among Catholic and Christian communities is a strong rationale for the Vatican to take a leadership role in the fight against NTDs, but it is one of many compelling angles. The NTD control and elimination effort is driven by many of the same principles that provide the foundation of the Catholic Church’s social mission and that of many of the world’s faith traditions: the life and dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable and the commitment to the common good. The upcoming International Conference on NTDs and rare diseases at the Vatican could be a pivotal moment for the NTD control and elimination effort. As the Church continues its mission of uplifting the poor and vulnerable, the effort to control and eliminate NTDs will help lay a foundation upon which further progress can be made.