When policy attention is the best remedy

Skewed presence of Neglected Tropical Diseases in poorer sections leads to under-investment in research.

Updated - February 22, 2017 11:14 am IST

Published - August 12, 2016 02:06 am IST

Blood samples being taken from patients at Sir Ronald Ross Institute for Tropical Diseases in Hyderabad. File photo

Blood samples being taken from patients at Sir Ronald Ross Institute for Tropical Diseases in Hyderabad. File photo

In the sphere of fundraising for medical research, 2014 will go down in history as a uniquely successful year in which philanthropist Bill Gates and many others across the world dumped buckets of ice water over their heads to raise money for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Within the wide spectrum of diseases, funding and research get diverted to afflictions which have a bigger market or threat like HIV or Ebola.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) categorises certain parasitic and bacterial diseases as Neglected Tropical Diseases, or NTDs, that cause substantial illness but affect only the world’s poorest populations, affecting over a billion people, primarily poor populations living in tropical and subtropical climates.

Many challenges

“Lacking a strong political voice, people affected by these tropical diseases have a … low status in public health priorities. Lack of reliable statistics and unpronounceable names of diseases have all hampered efforts to bring them out of the shadows,” states WHO in an explainer on NTDs.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, with its virality and star campaigners, raised a staggering $115 million in six weeks for the ALS Association for treatment and cure options but not all neglected diseases find champions.

Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO’s Regional Director for South-East Asia ,recently stated, “NTDs have no place in today’s world. As the name suggests, their persistence is the outcome of inattention and omission ...”

“Diseases affecting poor get proportionately less funding. Except for communicable diseases like HIV or Ebola that are scary to people because they cross boundaries,” says Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

She adds that so long as these diseases are restricted to poorer countries, there is no incentive for research.

“[This] is why governments of the high burden countries need to step up research and development funding. The BRICS countries certainly can do that. As far as India’s national priorities are concerned, our research has been aligned with burden of diseases,” Dr. Swaminathan said.

There is reason to be optimistic, however. Experts believe that many neglected tropical diseases can be prevented, even eliminated.

In May this year, WHO certified India yaws-free becoming the first country under the 2012 WHO NTD roadmap to eliminate yaws.

Doctors treating infections such as HIV are bewildered when Neglected Tropical Diseases are thrown in the mix.

This is the fifth part of the series, Malady Nation, on India's multi-dimensional healthcare crisis. This part outlines the cost of neglected tropical diseases and underscores the urgent need for funding.

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