Bringing Attention to Neglected Tropical Diseases: The Inter-American Development Bank, the Pan American Health Organization, and Partner Agencies in Latin America and the Caribbean Are Joining Forces to Control and Eliminate These Forgotten Diseases throughout the Region

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Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of fourteen parasitic and bacterial infections that thrive wherever there is poverty, poor sanitation, unsafe water, and malnutrition. These diseases are termed "neglected" because the international community has only recently taken into full account the suffering and chronic disability they inflict on over a billion of the world's poorest people. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the devastating consequences of these diseases are felt by more than 200 million people.

According to the World Health Organization, water-related diseases are the leading cause of death in the world, taking the lives of 6,000 people a day. They are responsible for 80 percent of all sickness in the world. Several NTDs are directly related to the availability of safe and clean water. Housing conditions are also associated with NTDs. Replacing dirt floors of dwellings with cement ones can improve the health of young children significantly.

Soil-transmitted helminthiases (STH), or intestinal worm infections, are some of the most common diseases in the region. They are treatable but they currently pose an immeasurable threat to the health of children throughout the region. Based on recent estimates by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), 94 percent of pre-school age and school-age children in the Americas are at risk--12,088,816 and 29,927,933 respectively. Intestinal worm infections in children cause malnutrition, limit mental and physical development, and are associated with up to a 43 percent reduction in future wage-earning capacity. Infected children have more difficulty concentrating in school and that leads to poor performance and decreased attendance. In many marginalized communities chronic infection and reinfection, often with multiple NTDs, has become the norm. If people do not have access to annual de-worming medication and if the socio-economic determinants of the transmission of the disease are not addressed (e.g. inadequate or lack of access to basic sanitation and inadequate hygiene practices), infections could lead to the loss of billions of dollars in future wage earnings, all but ensuring that those at risk of infection remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and disease.

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The health and livelihoods of some communities in the region are also threatened by four other common NTDs: trachoma, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, and onchocerciasis.

Trachoma, the second most endemic NTD, poses a threat to nearly 50 million people who live in high-risk areas of Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, and Colombia. Transmitted by flies and by subsequent direct or indirect contact with an infected person, this blinding condition requires a focus on hand washing, hygiene, and improved sanitation.

Schistosomiasis threatens the lives of around 25 million people who live primarily in the coastal areas of Brazil. The most frequent mode of transmission is contact with water that contains snails infected with Schistosoma larvae. The disease results in progressive enlargement of the liver and spleen, intestinal damage, and hypertension of the abdominal blood vessels.

Lymphatic filariasis (LF), an incredibly debilitating disease transmitted by mosquito bites, can lead to lymphedema, or swelling of limbs or genitals. The chronic conditions caused by LF are often the source of increased stigma and marginalization. Roughly nine million people are at risk of infection, and the vast majority of them live in Haiti.

Through the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas--a coordinated effort between public, private, and government agencies--the fight to eliminate onchocerciasis has seen great successes, leading to significant reductions in numerous endemic communities.

Controlling, preventing, and eventually eliminating some of these diseases in the Americas so that they no longer represent a public health problem is a high priority. …