The UK has cut the funding of its program to fight neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), effective August 31, 2021. The move is part of slashing cuts to the UK government’s aid budget.
The £200 million NTD project, known as Ascend (Accelerating the Sustainable Control and Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases), had two parts: one in west and central Africa, and the other encompassing eastern and southern Africa as well as parts of south Asia. Both parts were due to continue until 2022, but now they are closed eight months earlier than planned.
This decision is dismaying for the global eye health community and devasting for the millions of vulnerable people for whom it will now be extremely difficult to access sight-saving, life changing medication.
The aid cuts have an especially negative impact in the regions where OPC works in Francophone Africa. Globally, 40% of the NTD burden lies in Africa. Over the past several years, great progress has been made to combat NTDs: Ghana eliminated trachoma in 2018 and Togo eliminated lymphatic filariasis in 2017. This decision jeopardizes years of steady progress made towards the elimination of NTDs, and it means that countries that could have realistically looked forward to getting rid of a disease in the future may no longer be able to do so.
According to Simon Bush, director of NTDs at Sightsavers, one of OPC’s long-time partners, “If the project had continued as it was supposed to have done, around another 130 [million] treatments would have been undertaken, covering five of the neglected tropical diseases. Around 30,000 health staff would have been trained to monitor and supervise the programme. But one of the key elements is around 450,000 community health workers who would have been trained to deliver the drugs.”
NTDs are usually easily treated with medications donated by pharmaceutical companies. International nonprofit organizations, such as OPC, coordinate with national, regional, and local stakeholders, acting as a link to provide a viable, reliable means of getting the drugs to the people who need them most.
A key aspect of OPC’s work is providing training and capability building for eye health professionals and community health workers. In fact, OPC added three non-blinding NTDs (lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths) to its portfolio because they can all be controlled by the large-scale distribution of proven, effective medications to people living in endemic areas. OPC-trained community drug distributors are able to deliver the medicines to prevent these diseases as well as blinding NTDs (trachoma and onchocerciasis), especially if the same drug treats both conditions.
Several private funders have stepped forward to fill the gap left by the UK’s decision, and OPC is working with them to implement some of the actions planned as part of the Ascend program. However, not all projects will be covered and millions of people in Africa and Asia will continue to needlessly suffer from NTDs and remain at risk of infection. The international community must come together to ensure that years of progress made fighting NTDs does not backslide and that we continue the efforts to eradicate these diseases.
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