More than 1.7bn people require treatment for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) worldwide, with over 40% of the burden in Africa. Data indicate that reducing the illness and early death associated with NTDs would increase adults’ current and future economic productivity. Treating and preventing NTDs at a large scale could greatly increase the GDPs of countries that are currently burdened by disease.
With over 560 million people across Africa remain at risk of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – a group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases, such as river blindness and intestinal worms. In the over 140 countries across Africa where NTDs persist, there is a great economic and social burden due to these diseases. The most common NTDs in Africa are intestinal worms and schistosomiasis/bilharzia. If left untreated, these diseases can cause disability and early death. NTDs affect society’s most marginalized and poverty stricken communities that often have limited access to clean water and good sanitation.
In light of this, a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) that was supported by the END Fund highlights strategies for NTD control and explores the economic gains that abound from eliminating these diseases in Africa.
“This groundbreaking report allows us to envision a world free of parasitic worm infections. It is a call-to-action to have NTD elimination highlighted as a matter requiring urgent attention in the national agenda. The economic benefits of ending these diseases are profound across all levels of society, and require a locally owned multi-stakeholder approach,” said Karen Palacio, Associate Vice President, Programs, The END Fund.
The report suggests that it is necessary for countries and stakeholders to go beyond the continuous treatment of disease and move towards preventing disease through improved sanitation programmes, health education, and data collection. The report also points out the need for governments to own and lead initiatives so that solutions are better tailored to local needs.
As part of its analysis for the report, EIU explores the potential economic and social gains of ending parasitic worm infections in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. Their analysis suggests that meeting the WHO’s NTD 2030 targets could result in GDP gains of US$5.1bn at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) – a measurement that uses the prices of specific goods in different countries to compare currencies – between 2021 and 2040. In terms of impact by country, the report indicates that Ethiopia, which has the greatest NTD burden of the four countries, could record the largest gains (US$3.1bn) followed by Kenya (US$1.3bn), Rwanda (US$0.4bn), and Zimbabwe (US$0.3bn).
These economic gains would be a direct result of reductions in illness that would allow adults to work and contribute more actively to the economy. In addition, eliminating parasitic infections among school-age children would improve their ability to learn and attend school.
“In the last 10 years, we have had tremendous improvements in the health of the children. We have dramatically reduced morbidity. But we cannot stop the control interventions now. If we stop, we lose all the benefits”, Dr Antonio Montresor, Medical Officer, in charge of soil-transmitted helminthiasis, Department of Neglected Tropical Diseases, WHO explains.
Eliminating these diseases requires concerted action that is tailored to local contexts, including better disease mapping data, integration with wider public health efforts, and programs to improve sanitation. Additionally, investments should be targeted at strengthening health systems across the board, to make them more responsive and resilient to NTDs.