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Securing America’s Legacy in the Fight Against Neglected Tropical Diseases

This op-ed by Ambassador (ret.) Mary Ann Peters was published by The Hill.

Global progress against malaria, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases often makes headlines across our nation and around the world. And it should. Yet news rarely captures one of the biggest global health successes to date: our country’s efforts to eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

The NTD Program is a great example of what United States leadership in global health can achieve, and remains one of the best investments we can make in the health and economies of some of the fastest growing markets in the world.

NTDs are a group of debilitating, sometimes fatal, infectious diseases transmitted by flies, mosquitoes, and worms. They affect the poorest of the poor and can cause permanent disability, including blindness, skeletal deformity, disfigurement and enlargement of limbs to elephantine proportions. The effects of these diseases keep children from attending school and parents from being able to work, trapping communities in cycles of poverty and preventing countries from reaching their economic potential.

The global impact of NTDs is staggering — an estimated 1.6 billion people across 149 countries are at risk; one estimate puts the total sum of sickness, disability and death from these diseases roughly on a par with HIV/AIDS or malaria.

Five years ago, a coalition of public partners, including the United States, joined together in London to pledge their collective commitment to control or eliminate 10 of these diseases. This week, I joined many of these partners at a summit in Geneva to celebrate how far we’ve come, and determine what we still have left to accomplish.

The London Declaration, as the original commitment has come to be known, has evolved into one of the largest and most successful public health initiatives in history. The global NTD effort reached nearly a billion people in 2015 alone — an astounding increase of more than 200 million people in just two years.

As the program expands and improved tools are brought to bear, many countries are achieving their NTD elimination goals. Examples include two Carter Center-led programs: The Americas are on the cusp of eliminating river blindness, and Guinea worm disease is down to its last few cases. Other partner teams are achieving similar success, as eight countries, including Cambodia, Togo, and Sri Lanka, eliminated lymphatic filariasis last year, and sleeping sickness fell to a 50-year low.

The United States has been at the forefront of these efforts since well before the London Declaration. With bipartisan support, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s NTD Program has been improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people since 2006. This program distributes 300 million treatments annually, reaching 743 million people with 1.6 billion NTD treatments across 31 countries to date. In addition, the NTD Program has invested in research and development to ensure that promising new breakthrough medicines for filarial diseases can be rapidly evaluated, registered, and made available to patients.

Just as vital have been the partnerships established with pharmaceutical companies dedicated to the same cause. Industry signatories of the London Declaration have donated more than 7 billion NTD treatments since 2012 — 1.5 billion in 2015 alone — and commitments include treatments to all who need it, for as long as they’re needed. The value of donated medicines to the NTD Program has now reached $11.1 billion, with every U.S. dollar invested translating into $26 worth of donated treatments. In addition, companies are partnering with non-profit organizations to develop improved treatments for the most neglected patients.

On a global scale, reaching our goals for these diseases would save around $600 billion in lost economic productivity by 2030, strengthen community health systems, ensure greater global health security, save thousands of lives and spare millions more from a life of suffering. A new report released this week projects that 260 million people in the least-developed countries could be covered by NTD treatments with new investments of $100 million per year.

The United States should remain in the vanguard of the fight against NTDs to transform these estimates into reality — and better lives for the more than 1 billion people still needlessly suffering from these preventable diseases.

We must maintain steady investments in USAID’s NTD Program and urge other nations to do the same. We must ensure that the best treatments and tools are developed and reach the populations most in need.  And we must build on our partnerships with the private sector and other donors to ensure that our taxpayers’ contributions leverage far more in other resources.

The American investment in tackling NTDs ensures a brighter future for our country and a healthier, more secure world. Let’s make sure we keep our promise to sustain the fight against NTDs — a legacy that will benefit generations to come, alleviating suffering and unleashing the power of people to help themselves forge a better future.

Mary Ann Peters was the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh from 2000 to 2003. She lead the mission's efforts in support of the war on terrorism and other key U.S. foreign policy goals. Peters now serves as the CEO of The Carter Center.

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