South-South Cooperation Moves Forward to Free the Indigenous Yanomami People from Neglected Tropical Diseases
Today marks the United Nations (UN) Day for South-South Cooperation — an opportunity for the global development community to examine how developing and emerging countries can share knowledge, exchange best practices and pursue joint projects to generate tangible solutions to development challenges.
As a young officer in the Ministry of Health of Argentina, I attended the first UN Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC) where I had the opportunity to witness the launching of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, a blueprint adopted in 1978 that offered guidance and new energy to the concept of south-south cooperation. At the same time, the International Conference on Primary Health Care concluded with the Alma Ata Declaration — a public health milestone that recognized health as a fundamental human right.
It was an exciting time to be a part of these landmarks in public health and see how these principles are being carried out today. A closer look at Brazil and Venezuela’s joint commitment to controlling and eliminating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) within the Yanomami community —a nomadic indigenous tribe made up of approximately 35,000 people — spotlights the key role of south-south cooperation in reaching all populations in need of key health interventions. Equally important, this successful model can be replicated within the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region and across the globe.
The Yanomami territory is a remote stretch of tropical rainforests and mountains on the northern border of Brazil and southern part of Venezuela (approximately 19,000 people live on the Brazilian side and 16,000 on the Venezuelan side). The combined border area is over 9.6 million hectares — about twice the size of Switzerland — and represents the largest forested indigenous territory in the world. The entire community is affected or at risk for onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness.
The high prevalence of onchocerciasis within the Yanomami community represents the last stronghold of this disease in the LAC region, which has made significant strides towards its elimination, in addition to controlling many other NTDs. Several countries across the region have either launched or implemented national plans to control and eliminate NTDs within their borders. In 2014, Colombia became the first country in the world to eliminate onchocerciasis. These successes underscore the strong political commitments made by regional leaders including the Organization of American States (OAS), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA).
While these are impressive milestones, more work needs to be done to address NTDs within the Yanomami community — as the area occupied by the Yanomami is regarded as the greatest challenge for interrupting the transmission and making LAC an oncho- free region. Because of their nomadic habits plus their isolated and forested environment, health workers must travel by helicopter or boat to reach them. Many logistical and financial challenges need to be overcome to deliver the required series of treatments.
Here is how south-south cooperation can help address these challenges:
Brazil and Venezuela formalized and agreed to join efforts to tackle this problem in May 2014 during the 67th World Health Assembly. Through this commitment, these two countries will coordinate efficiently the provision of continuous integrated healthcare for affected communities in both Brazil and Venezuela. They will work together to train local community health workers and form bi-national humanitarian teams that will also include local residents to treat the last focus of onchocerciasis in the Americas through the development of integral healthcare to affected communities on both sides of the border.
Furthermore, these teams will support the creation of a bi-national health model to provide work assistance for Brazil and Venezuela. A technical team of the Brazilian Ministry of Health is working with the Venezuelan Ministry of Health team in order to strengthen and integrate public policy to eliminate onchocerciasis in the Yanomami area.
By harnessing their collective experiences and expertise, I am confident that these countries can successfully work together to end the unnecessary suffering of the Yanomami population — and ultimately help the LAC region see the end of onchocerciasis.
Looking ahead, the post-2015 development agenda dialogue, the BRICS Ministers of Health meeting and the UN South-South Cooperation EXPO offer exceptional opportunities for government officials and development partners to showcase south-south cooperation as a critical, sustainable and successful model to address NTDs and other pressing global health and development challenges.
 According to Health Ministry of Brazil, in 2012, the Yanomami territory had 293 small villages that contain 4,550 families from five different ethnic groups, most of them Yanomami. There were 21 thousand of indigenous people living in this region, which 11,600 were located in endemic area.