To reach Vaupés province in Colombia, you have two options: by boat or by plane. The communities scattered throughout Vaupés’ dense Amazon rain forest have long supported themselves through agriculture, fishing and forestry, but their isolation has meant limited health services and a high burden of preventable diseases, including neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

But in September 2014, this started to change. Supported by a grant from the AbbVie Foundation, the Sabin Vaccine Institute began working with the Colombian nonprofit Sinergias - Alianzas Estrategicas para la Salud y el Desarrollo (Sinergias) to improve prevention, control and elimination efforts for five prioritized NTDs in the Vaupés province. Over the next 20 months, Sinergias staff travelled to 18 communities to conduct home visits, lead workshops, rollout mass drug administration, and implement a community health surveillance system focusing on NTDs. Sinergias recently received the Hardest-to-Reach award for these efforts, one of four groups to receive awards given as part of Save the Children and GlaxoSmithKline’s fourth annual Healthcare Innovation Award.

NTDs are a group of 18 parasitic, bacterial and viral infections that impact more than one billion people around the world. These diseases can lead to blindness, physical disabilities, malnutrition and even death, and trap families and communities in a cycle of disease and poverty. Sinergias targeted five NTDs that were affecting rural indigenous populations in Vaupés province: trachoma, soil-transmitted helminths, tungiasis, lice and scabies. Colombian health authorities requested that Larva migrans also be included in the surveillance and control activities.

The Colombian Ministry of Health had introduced a nationwide initiative to tackling NTDs in the country, but the geographic and cultural challenges present in Vaupés required additional, targeted efforts in order to meet the Ministry’s goals. Vaupés has one of the largest population dispersions of all of Colombia’s provinces, and, consequently, health interventions in the area can be more costly. Additionally, 85 percent of Vaupés’ population recognize themselves as indigenous from 28 different ethnic groups, each with its own language and culture.

Between September 2014 and May 2015, Sinergias helped to bring progress to 18 communities in Vaupés that had not benefited from national or local efforts to date. Sinergias coordinated with the Ministry of Health and local health officials to conduct mass drug administration, workshops, social mobilization and surveillance activities to prevent and control the five targeted NTDs.

Sinergias’ efforts led to high coverage of drug acceptance, decreased NTD prevalence and significant participation of most inhabitants. Additionally, the work in the Vaupés’ communities strengthened health institutions, with newly-formed community health surveillance committees performing well. Despite the challenges, Sinergias succeeded in identifying a cross-cultural healthcare delivery model for indigenous populations in the Amazon region. Sabin is proud to have supported these activities.

For the notable achievements of the project, Save the Children and GlaxoSmithKline announced on June 1, 2017, that Sinergias was one of this year’s Health Innovation Award recipients and would receive $250,000 to support its work. This funding will help Sinergias to build on their comprehensive, cross-cultural healthcare delivery model and expand their work to even more communities scattered throughout Vaupés’ rain forest.