Why are we neglecting an obvious solution to poverty?
By Michael W. Marine, Ambassador (Ret.)
During my many years as a diplomat, I saw firsthand how the power of collective action can be extraordinarily important in shaping momentous changes. A few examples include: the creation of the PEPFAR program to combat HIV/AIDS, the accelerated response to terrorism following the East African embassy bombings, effective international coordination to tackle the SARS and avian flu threats, and the constructive collaboration between the United States and Vietnam on the issue of Agent Orange.
Now it is time to intensify our actions to deal with another global problem: neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which sadly and unnecessarily remain a constant, crushing burden for the world’s poor.
Neglected tropical diseases afflict more than a billion people with some 800,000 children at risk. NTDs are linked to nearly every other major development challenge. Children infected with intestinal worms are more likely to face stunted growth and severe anemia, negating the value of programs that aim to improve health and nutrition. Other NTDs can cause blindness and crippling physical disfigurements, exposing people, especially women, to stigma, lost jobs and diminished wages. But the problem goes well beyond health. These devastating consequences directly impact the economic futures of families and communities, perpetuating poverty and inequality.
For more than a decade, the international community, led by the United States, the United Kingdom and many of the countries where NTDs are endemic, has made important progress against NTDs, delivering more than 1.1 billion treatments in 2014 alone. NTD treatment programs are simple, high-impact and extremely cost-effective, thanks to the vital contributions of major pharmaceutical companies that provide drugs to treat many NTDs free of charge. Yet despite this progress, just 50 percent of people at risk for these preventable diseases are receiving the medicine they require.
When the equivalent of the entire population of Africa is infected with potentially debilitating conditions, we have a serious problem. The plain fact is that the world community has failed to live up to its promises and, as a result, has not overcome lingering obstacles to achieve a relatively easy public health victory over NTDs. Right now, we need the leadership of the Group of 7 (G7) industrialized nations to step up their support and provide the modest increase in financial resources needed to defeat many of the NTDs within this decade, and all 18 by 2030.
The G7 has historically demonstrated its ability to act as a collective voice and pool resources to respond to fast-breaking global health and foreign policy challenges, most recently to the devastating Ebola outbreak. This group of industrialized nations is also well equipped to make policy decisions with an eye toward the future, as it did in 2010 with the landmark Muskoka Initiative, which has consistently channeled resources to improve maternal, newborn and child health.
Putting NTDs front and center on the agenda for last year’s G7 summit, hosted by Germany, was an important step in the right direction, but the G7 now needs to double down on its investments and finish the job it started nearly 20 years ago with the Japan-led Hashimoto Initiative. The achievements made so far will prove short-lived without immediate, decisive, sustained action. We need to solve the NTD problem, once and for all.
It costs less than 50 cents per year to treat and protect one person against the most common NTDs. What we need now are relatively modest financial investments to help endemic countries scale up their treatment programs to ensure that available drugs reach all the communities in need.
As the G7 and its partners strive to take meaningful action to help other countries achieve prosperity, they can remove one significant barrier to social and economic progress by implementing comprehensive NTD treatment programs. In turn, this would raise the return on investment for the G7’s efforts in health, nutrition, education and economic development.
So what’s it going to take? We challenge the G7 health ministers to go beyond their political commitments by raising an additional annual investment of $200 million over the next five years to scale up access to treatments through mass drug administration and multisectoral approaches.
As we draw closer to the elimination of NTDs, we will need more sophisticated tools – including vaccines and better diagnostics – which require an increase in dedicated research funding. At this summer’s Heads of State Summit in Japan, G7 leaders committed to “implement policies to encourage the development of and access to medical products” for NTDs. While scientists develop these new tools, G7 leaders have a responsibility to close the funding gap that is currently keeping donated treatments from reaching communities in need. The Ise-Shima Progress Report, which tracks progress the G7 countries have made on their commitments, shows some funding increases for NTD-related research following the 2015 G7 summit, but treatment programs have received significantly less attention. Only Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States allocated funds in 2015 to NTD treatment programs, and most of those funds were already committed before the summit and do not represent a real increase in financing. It is time to see resources to match the rhetoric.
One in six people in the world will go to bed tonight afflicted by one or more NTDs. If, with all our technological advances and unprecedented private sector donations, we cannot change the predicament of the poorest people for mere pennies per person, how can we expect to overcome more challenging, costlier health and development challenges?
Michael W. Marine is a trustee and former chief executive officer of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from 2004 to 2007.