Tapping into Neglect

“There is no precise and broadly accepted definition of neglected disease,” states Professor Alex Broadbent, Head of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. Currently, the class of ‘neglected tropical diseases’ or NTDs, ranges from soil-transmitted helminthiasis to snakebites. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the varied classification as such:

“They are named neglected because these disease persist exclusively in the poorest and the most marginalized communities, and have been largely eliminated elsewhere and thus are often forgotten… Most can be prevented or eliminated.”

(World Health Organization, 2010b)

4347804429_0036e25861_oThe 17 diseases that fall into this category are mostly caused by parasitic and bacterial infections; of which, parasitic helminthes or worms cause 7, the most common being soil-transmitted. Collectively, NTDs account for 90% of the global disease burden. Yet, only 10% of global research and development (R&D) resources are focused on them.

This vast aid discrepancy stemmed from a lack of financial incentive, and thus interest, for pharmaceutical companies to fund laboratories dedicated to developing drugs to treat these diseases. The progressive disengagement of the pharmaceutical industry by 1975, led to the stagnation of biomedical research into new and affordable drugs for these diseases. This resulted in a domino effect:

No new drugs

Infectious agents become resistant drugs

Diseases become harder to treat

Increased proportion of population remain infected

Resultant negative effect on society, economy, infrastructure…etc.

A similar story is seen with a lack of affordable drugs. As we can see, it becomes obvious how the local effects managed to snowball into a much larger and pressing global health concern. Dr. Dirk Engels, Director of Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, asserts this fact by describing the alarming current state of NTDs that “affect more than 1 billion people worldwide and are endemic in 149 countries.”

So how do we stop neglecting NTDs?

From a policy-makers perspective, Engles says, “The priority is to ensure that WHO’s roadmap targets for 2015 and 2020 are met through the implementation of five public health approaches.” He goes on to describe these as “strengthening the capacity of countries to meet current scale-up of interventions is crucial to the success of disease control programmes.”

What next? Implementing effective policies to improve the infrastructure of endemic countries is only one part of the battle. NTDs are global concern in more ways than one. The existing approach to tackle this issue is through the creation of public-private partnership (PPP) organizations. These partnerships work alongside philanthropists as a complement to one another’s resources. This has been proved to be a very successful approach to date and it is through this collaborative spirit that the Challenging Neglect podcast series was born.

The main aim of the Challenging Neglect podcast series is to combine this collaborative spirit with the interdisciplinary nature of Science and Technology studies. By conducting interviews with philosophers, historians, epidemiologists, policy-makers and researchers from the life sciences, we want to stimulate a discussion providing a range of perspectives. By viewing NTDs in a variety of different contexts we aim to promote interdisciplinary discussion on the topic of NTDs and how we can tackle them most effectively.

Chowa Nkonde

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