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Tackling neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) has long-term economic gains for Africa

The END Fund is the only private philanthropic initiative solely dedicated to ending the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) OYETOLA ODUYEMI, Africa Regional Adviser of the END Fund in this Interview with KELECHI EWUZIE, speaks on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), the burden in Nigeria and how stakeholders can work to eradicate them. Excerpt:

What can you tell us about the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs)?

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases affecting more than 1.7 billion of the world’s population, with about 40% of this burden concentrated in Africa. Two of the most common NTDs are intestinal worms and schistosomiasis, both of which are parasitic worm infections. Treatments for these diseases, commonly known as deworming, reduce stunted growth in children and improve food and vitamin absorption.

The NTDs disproportionately affect women and children. There are millions of mothers out there who cannot afford proper medical attention, and worms, the cause of some of the most prevalent NTDs as earlier mentioned, are a very real threat to family health. This is one of the reasons why the END Fund is committed to doing all we can, with the support of private sector and other key stakeholders in Nigeria, to end the NTDs in this generation, and support good health and wellness for all.

What are the benefits of ending NTDs in Nigeria?

Every dollar invested in NTD control and elimination results in an economic benefit of $27 – $42, which is N10, 000 – N15,000.

Studies have shown that children who are dewormed are 25% more likely to attend school, and adults are able to increase their earnings by 20%. Moreover, deworming also improves labour productivity and long-term economic gains.

With the Nigerian population expected to reach over 300 million by 2050, addressing Nigeria’s NTD burden will not only directly improve the health and education of its people. In fact, it will also be critical to the country’s economic prosperity.

Take us through what the END Fund is all about?

The END Fund is the only private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – a group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases, such as river blindness and intestinal worms.  By engaging a community of activist-philanthropists and taking a systems approach, we are working in collaboration with governments, NGOs, pharmaceutical, and academic partners to end these diseases in our lifetime.

What has the END Fund been doing in Nigeria?

The END Fund was founded in 2012, and we commenced programmatic intervention work in Nigeria in 2013. Since then, the END Fund with our partners has delivered well over 65 million NTD treatments, to Nigerians. We have carried out surgeries, and have trained over 60,000 health workers; all at a cost exceeding $300 million. This we have done with the kind support of our partners.

Furthermore in 2019, we partnered with Youth Empowerment and Development Initiative (YEDI) and StreetfootballWorld to carry out an enlightenment campaign in Lagos on prevention and control of the endemic NTDs. This is because the NTDs are easily preventable; and with the right information provided to the general public and especially communities most at risk, we can reduce the NTD burden that Nigeria bears.

In 2019 also, we carried out mass administration of medicine exercises to combat NTDs. In addition, we also ran a public service announcement with SuperEagles Defender, William Troost-Ekong, on the prevention and control of NTDs. This PSA ran on both radio and television in six Nigerian states:  Akwa Ibom, Ondo, Osun, Ekiti, Bauchi, Gombe; and the Federal Capital Territory.

January 30th is World NTD Day. Why is this significant?

Health is a human right. Everyone, everywhere, should be able to get the health care they need, with dignity and without discrimination. What sets NTDs apart is how they disfigure, disable & blind people. In Nigeria, this means facing stigma, discrimination & social exclusion, which take a severe toll on #mentalhealth. World NTD Day is important because it will bring together civil society advocates, community leaders, global health experts and policymakers working across the diverse NTD landscape, and unify partners behind our common goal: to #BeatNTDs

What are the burdens of these diseases in Nigeria?

Despite being the most populous and one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, Nigeria also bears the greatest burden of NTDs on the continent, with 133 million Nigerians in need of treatment for at least one NTD – about two thirds of its population.

What role do you think stakeholders like Ministry of Health, partners, can play in beating NTDs and how does this affect SDGs?

The key thing is that all hands must be on deck. The Federal government, policymakers, and the private sector are critical to supporting the work that the END Fund is doing in Nigeria.

There are other African countries that have eradicated one or more NTDs in the last 10 years, and so we know this it is possible. The key thing is the will to achieve it, getting the work done. If we drive awareness of NTDs, and build advocacy and partnerships to tackle these diseases, we can beat the NTDs. We however do need to take definitive action now.

More broadly, the drive to tackle the NTDs in Nigeria, has attendant benefits beyond the NTDs. While NTD interventions have the greatest relevance for SDG 3 (“ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all,” with SDG 3.3 calling explicitly for an end to NTDs by 2030), they are inextricably linked to almost all of the development areas covered by the SDGs.

Tackling NTDs is fundamental to ending the cycle of poverty (SDG 1). Strategies such as mass drug administration or the integration of NTD and water and sanitation activities (SDG 6) are driven by effective global partnerships (SDG 17). Intervention against NTDs will also reduce malnutrition and hunger (SGD 2), and improve education outcomes (SDG 4) by training teachers and health facility staff to deliver critical NTD treatment and education to the youth of the country.

I see my involvement in the END Fund as a very good opportunity to drive positive impact, and tackle diseases that are easily preventable and treatable.

I encourage all stakeholders to work towards beating NTDs, and collectively make a positive impact on the country.

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