What are the Neglected Infections of Poverty?

Just as the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) plague developing nations, a group of chronic and disabling conditions—the “neglected diseases of poverty”— afflict hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. These diseases exist almost exclusively among the poor, particularly women and children, and contribute to vast social and health disparities. They have a devastating impact on childhood development, maternal and child health, and worker productivity, trapping individuals and communities in a continuous cycle of sickness and poverty.

Some Common Neglected Infections of Poverty:

Congenital cytomegalovirus infection

  • A viral disease transmitted from mother to child in the womb
  • Causes mental retardation and hearing loss for the child
  • Occurs in over 6,000 African American babies

Trichomoniasis

  • A parasitic infection most commonly diagnosed in women
  • Causes birth complications, including premature birth and low birth weight
  • Occurs in approximately 880,000 African American women, a rate 10 times higher than that of white women

Toxocariasis

  • A parasitic worm infection spread through the excrement of infected dogs and cats
  • Causes asthma, especially in children
  • Occurs in up to 2.8 million poor African American children

Chagas Disease

  • A parasitic disease spread through the feces of infected insects
  • Causes severe heart problems and intestinal complications
  • Occurs in up to 1 million Hispanics in the United States

Cysticercosis

  • A parasitic worm infection caused by the pork tapeworm
  • Can cause seizures and headaches in infected people
  • Considered the leading cause of epilepsy among Hispanics

Dengue Fever

  • Spread by mosquitoes
  • Causes mild to incapacitating fevers with headache; complications can be fatal, especially in children
  • 110,000 to 200,000 new infections occur annually in the US-Mexican Borderlands and the American South

Who’s affected? 
As the name suggests, the neglected infections of poverty impact the US’s poorest rural and urban populations. The regions experiencing the highest levels of infection are:

  • The Mississippi Delta and post-Katrina Louisiana
  • Inner cities of the Northeast and Midwest
  • US-Mexico borderlands
  • Appalachia

It is important to note that, though refugee and immigrant populations exhibit high levels of infection with these diseases, they are also transmitted within the US’s borders. The most important determinant of infection is not country of origin, race, or gender; it is poverty.

What can be done? 
Unfortunately, very little scientific research has been done on these infections in recent decades. Much more scientific attention is needed to gather more precise estimates of the numbers infected and the prevalence in specific regions.

Neglected infections of poverty must also be prioritized by Congress and the next Presidential Administration. Today, the U.S. spends more than $1 billion annually for potential biodefense threats such as anthrax, smallpox, and avian flu — diseases that do not currently affect Americans. However, for these diseases that cause real suffering among the poor, our budget is in most cases 100 or even 1000 times smaller.

The lack of research and policy on these diseases points to the urgent need to increase surveillance and mapping efforts, scale up cost effective drug control and treatment campaigns using existing medications, implement newborn screening policies nationwide, and develop new drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines for future control.

For more information on the neglected nfections of poverty and the regions of highest poverty in the U.S., please click here.

For more information regarding general poverty in the U.S., please click here.