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Image: Jimmy Chan / Pexels
Image: Jimmy Chan / Pexels

Tackle poverty to end tropical diseases

Patrick Grady MP
January 19, 2024

When we talk about malaria and neglected tropical diseases, as we did in a Westminster Hall debate on 8th January, we are not just talking about a group of 21 diseases that exist in test tubes or petri dishes in a lab somewhere. We are talking about diseases that are having a daily impact on the lives of 1.7 billion people – nearly one in five around the world. 

They can cause immense suffering, disability, disfigurement, and can often be fatal. In many ways, it is not just the diseases that are neglected – the people affected by them are also, by definition, being neglected.

On Monday 30th January, we will mark World NTD Day, a day designated by the World Health Organisation to raise awareness of the challenge and opportunity we have to eliminate many of these deadly diseases. This year’s theme is “unite, act, eliminate”, and challenges decision-makers and those in positions in power to work together and mobilise the resources necessary to eliminate malaria and other neglected tropical diseases.

The evidence shows that it is the poorest, most vulnerable, marginalised and remote people and communities, and particularly women and girls that are affected most by these diseases. Schistosomiasis, for example can lead to female genital schistosomiasis, with an estimated 56 million cases worldwide, which can triple the risk of HIV and cause infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and in some cases maternal death.

The human cost of these diseases is incredibly high. Last year, a cross-party group of MPs visited Malawi with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and NTDs, to see for ourselves the impact of these diseases and efforts to overcome them. In the Salima district, we met a number of people who had lived with trachoma, a bacterial infection which can cause eyelashes to draw in and can damage eyesight and cause blindness.

The human cost of these diseases is incredibly high Quote

People affected can lose their independence, and their family and friends have to dedicate time and resources caring for them in turn. But caught early, trachoma can be treated with antibiotics or surgery. It can be prevented with good water and sanitation for health practices, and – and this was the key lesson from our visit – it can be eliminated altogether.

The people we met had been affected by trachoma, but interventions – supported by Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust Trachoma Initiative – have helped restore their sight, and since 2022 trachoma has been eliminated as a public health concern in Malawi – the first country in Southern Africa, the fourth country in the WHO Africa Region, and the 15th country globally to achieve this milestone.

So what we witnessed was not just individual transformation – men and women whose sight had been restored, who could live independently, but the community transformed, as they could go back to actively contributing, caring for grandchildren and helping with other tasks. And their families in turn benefit from that support, and can focus their time and energy back on education or employment.

The campaign group Uniting to Combat NTDs reckons that in some cases, investing just $1 USD in tackling these diseases can unlock $25 USD of benefits. A recent study by Deloitte showed that if Nigeria met its NTD elimination targets by 2030, it could add $19 billion USD to its economy.

So if we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, if we want to unlock wasted economic potential, change the nature of aid flows and release new forms of finance to help developing countries drive poverty reduction and grow their economies, then investing properly and effectively in tackling malaria and NTDs is essential.

The government must also make sure that it recognises the importance of a cross-sectoral approach, and ensure that there is coordination and collaboration between malaria and NTD programmes and existing investments in nutrition, education, WASH, disability inclusion, and maternal and child health. In all of this we have to address massive structural issues, including the climate emergency and the growing debt burden on developing countries.

Malaria, and many other tropical diseases, have been neglected for too long – and that means that the people most affected by these diseases have also been neglected for too long. But all the evidence shows that we can cure, prevent and ultimately eliminate these diseases. For relatively little cost, we can achieve a massive return on investment, both in terms of long-term savings of the costs of chronic treatment, but also in the actualisation of economic and social potential of people no longer confined to a sick-bed or condemned to an early death, but working for the betterment of their families and communities.

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Patrick Grady is the Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow North.

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