First African Conference On Neglected Diseases Calls For Increased Efforts To Tackle The Challenges

Nairobi, Kenya (6 December 2019) – An International Conference on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) ended in Nairobi on Friday with calls for increased research, resources and strengthened cross border partnerships to accelerate the elimination of the diseases.

The three day inaugural conference in Africa brought together some 230 participants including scientists, researchers, policy makers and pharmaceutical companies from 19 countries.

“I am absolutely happy, and extremely proud of the fact the meeting… has brought together African program implementers and researchers to discuss the neglected diseases. I think it was long time coming. It’s a great initiative,” Dr. Mwelecele Malecela, the director of he Department for the Control of Neglected Diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO) told Health Policy Watch at the end of the meeting.

Preventative treatments for schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths, two major NTDs, are distributed to children in Tanzania.

WHO was one of the sponsors of the conference together with other organizations: The DRUID Project, The Foundation For Innovative New Diagnostics, WHO, The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, The End Fund, The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Evidence Action.

Several participants at the conference said convening the meeting in Nairobi was most appropriate since the highest neglected diseases burden was in Africa.

“We have been attending international conferences on NTDs in the USA, Europe and elsewhere. We have come back with a lot useful knowledge, but only a few us have been able to attend,” said Dr. Sultani Matendechero, head of the Division of Vector Borne and Neglected Tropical Diseases, Kenya Ministry of Health.

 But the paradox, he said, was that the highest NTDs disease burden is in Africa.

“This is a big problem and the burden is huge. That is why we are want to give it visibility. It affects the poor who do not have the resources. This meeting will enable us move forward as required.”

In plenary and scientific sessions, and under the theme; Cross-border partnership towards achieving control and elimination of NTDs”, the participants focused discussion on strengthening government ownership, advocacy, coordination and partnerships. Connecting basic research and clinical trials for drugs vaccines, and diagnostic to control efforts, and translating research into advocacy into policy, advocacy and community engagement, were some of the other areas of focus.

“The issues that have been discussed have an impact on all countries in Africa and relate to cross border issues. For example, people trying to eliminate diseases from either side of the border, but facing great obstacles which are linked to the fact that these diseases know no borders,” said Malecela.

The official told the conference attendees it was great opportunity to hear what is happening in Africa and see the potential in the continent.

“We have a critical mass of leaders in this field,” said Malecela.

Many countries in Africa and the across the world are experiencing unprecedented outbreaks of diseases like leishmaniasis, Chikungunya, dengue and other haemorrhagic viruses, the conference attendees heard. These have the greatest impact on poor countries where resources and capacities are limited, according to various speakers at the conference.

John Amuasi, the executive director for African Research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases underlined the need to strengthen health systems and preparedness in countries to address both current and emerging challenges related to the NTDs.

“Policy makers, pharmaceutical companies, and research & development institutions have not prioritized the diseases. As a result there are major unmet treatment needs for NTDs.  Medicines are either unavailable or unaffordable for the patient,” said Amuasi, while underling that most of the NTDs’ victims were the poorest populations living in remote rural areas, urban slums or conflict zones.

“The control and elimination (of NTDs) should be considered a health priority for the continent,” he said.

Yet, NTDs research and advocacy has faced major challenges, according to speakers at the conference. Some include historically poor career pathways for scientists in Africa, acute lack of local funding for African institutions and governments and lack of infrastructure, especially modern equipment.

“We do not have the capacity. When we sent people for training abroad, they do not come back.  I think we need to build our capacity,” said Ahmed Musa, a professor at the Institute of Endemic Diseases at the University of Khartoum, Sudan.

At the opening, Dr. Rashid Aman, the chief administrative secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Health had told the conference that NTDs were a source of tremendous suffering because of their disfiguring, debilitating and sometimes have deadly impact.

“They are called neglected since they have been eliminated in the developed world, but continue to persist in poor, marginalized and regions in conflict,” said Aman, while explaining that where the diseases occur social stigma is a consequence, in addition to causing physical and emotional suffering, hampering the people’s ability to work, keeping children out of school and retarding families and communities.

Increased trade activities and interaction among communities living along national boundaries, according to Aman, have heightened the risk of cross –border transmission of the infections in East Africa.

The border stretches have also experienced increased cases of major infectious and parasitic diseases, including HIV/AIDS and livestock related ones such schistosomiasis and the rhodesiense strain of African Trypanosomiasis – also known as sleeping sickness.

According to Aman, Kenya in its aspiration to achieve Universal Health Coverage ( UHC) by 2022 was looking at Ministry of Health’s Division of Vector Borne & Neglected Tropical Diseases to play a great role in ensuring control, elimination and eventual eradication of the NTDs.

At the same time, Malecela said WHO was currently working on 2020 road map and hoped everyone would align around road map in their country contexts.

The road map, according to the official, focuses on better integrating the diseases in the health system, integrating the delivery in the health system, better collaboration and coordination with other multi-sectoral players, for example nutrition, animal health and water and sanitation, and finally just stronger country ownership of these programs.

Attendees of the first African NTD Conference

Image Credits: RTI Fights NTDs, Fredrick Nzwili/HP-Watch.