The diseases have impossibly tongue-twisting, unfamiliar, or even disgusting names: cutaneous leishmaniasis, helminthiases, schistosomiasis, yaws, Guinea worm disease. These are just a few of numerous ailments now known as “neglected tropical diseases.”
And while these diseases may technically be “neglected,” every low-income country is affected by five or more neglected tropical diseases at once, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These diseases cause misery and suffering—and they kill more than 500,000 people worldwide every year.
Now, governmental and advocacy groups, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are stepping up efforts to control and banish these killers.
"There is a growing number of organizations, including a host of non-governmental organizations, that are spending money for raising awareness, advocacy, operational research, and implementation of control measures," Dr. Juerg Utzinger, professor of epidemiology at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, affiliated with the University of Basel, tells TakePart. His update of the management of neglected tropical diseases was published in November in Swiss Medical Weekly.
Neglected tropical diseases weren't even ''branded'' until 2005, Utzinger says; since then, the initial list of 13 has grown to more than 40. Tracking the diseases has given WHO a road map to overcoming these killers, which are caused by viruses, fungi, parasites, and bacateria. In a report, WHO says it has “produced overwhelming evidence to show that the burden caused by many of the 17 diseases [mentioned in the report] that affect more than 1 billion people worldwide can be effectively controlled and, in many cases, eliminated or even eradicated."
The goals of controlling, and eventually eradicating, 17 of these diseases are ambitious, but WHO and other experts contend they are possible, pointing to the encouraging example of a WHO campaign against yaws, a bacterial infection that affects skin, bones, and cartilage and is spread by contact with open skin sores, and for which there is no vaccine.
The campaign, which calls for global eradication of yaws by 2020, was made far easier thanks to the recent discovery that a single dose of the oral antibiotic azithromycin can cure the disease. That works as well, experts now know, as penicillin injections. Even more encouraging, treatment for most mass drug programs to eradicate these diseases is about 50 cents (U.S.) per person per year, says the CDC.
Success in lowering rates of yaws isn’t the only sign of progress: Cases of Guinea worm disease fell from nearly 900,000 in 12 countries to just about 3,000 in four counties over two decades—a decrease of 99 percent. And in 2007, the People's Republic of China became the first endemic country to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (LF) as a public health problem; also known as elephantiasis, the parasitic infection can cause severe disfigurement. Ten West African countries have also eliminated onchocerciasis, a parasitic infection that can cause blindness.
If you’re traveling internationally, it’s good to be aware of these diseases, but there’s no need for grave concern, says Utzinger. "The risk…of becoming infected by any of the neglected tropical diseases is very small,'' he says. To learn more and find out how you can help, visit WHO or the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.
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Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist who writes about health. She doesn't believe in miracle cures, but continues to hope someone will discover a way for joggers to maintain their pace.