Washington, D.C., 15 May 2012 (PAHO/WHO) — More than 100 million people in the Americas suffer from neglected infectious diseases, which tend to affect poor populations. Experts from member countries of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) will review efforts to eliminate 10 such diseases from the Americas and reduce the impact of two others by 2015.
The review will take place in the context of the 16th annual meeting of the WHO Alliance for Global Elimination of Blinding Trachoma by 2020 (GET 2020), which brings together experts on trachoma and other neglected diseases from around the world. Trachoma, which can cause permanent blindness, is a neglected infectious disease that exists in four countries of the Americas. Experts will analyze opportunities and challenges for developing and implementing integrated action plans for trachoma and other neglected infectious diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Neglected diseases are caused by various microorganisms. For the most part they are chronic infectious diseases that have lasting effects on health, affecting growth, physical and intellectual development, and learning abilities.
Most of these diseases can be treated or prevented through low-cost interventions. Some can be treated with one or two doses of medication per year. For example, 45 million children under 15 in the Americas have intestinal parasites, which can be treated at a cost of 2–5 cents. Several international pharmaceutical companies are donating drugs to endemic countries.
Communities can be affected by more than one neglected disease, in which case comprehensive interventions can be employed. This means not only providing medication but also working on vector control and prevention through public education and improved access to water and sanitation. These interventions address the social determinants and are critical for breaking the cycle of poverty and disease.
In 2009, the health authorities of the Americas set the target date of 2015 for eliminating or reducing the impact of 12 neglected infectious diseases: Chagas' disease, congenital syphilis, human rabies transmitted by dogs, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, malaria, neonatal tetanus, onchocerciasis, plague, schistosomiasis, helminthiasis transmitted by soil, and trachoma.
"It is possible to achieve elimination of certain diseases that still affect our populations, for which we already have knowledge and the tools to control and eliminate," said PAHO Director of PAHO, Dr. Mirta Roses Periago. "It is also an ethical imperative that we make the necessary efforts to eliminate those diseases."
The countries of the Americas have made significant advances toward eliminated or reducing neglected diseases:
- Leprosy has been eliminated at the national level in 34 of the region’s 35 countries.
- Household transmission through the principal vector of Chagas’ disease has been eliminated in 14 countries.
- Universal screening of blood donors for Chagas has been implemented in 20 of 21 endemic countries.
- Lymphatic filariasis has been eliminated in three countries.
- Onchocerciasis transmission has been eliminated or interrupted in 10 of 13 foci in the Americas.
In 2008, the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and PAHO reached an agreement to develop a regional initiative for the control and elimination of diseases associated with poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. The partnership has advanced elimination by strengthening primary health care delivery and expanding access to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
“This week’s activities showcase how important integration is to eliminate not just trachoma but several neglected diseases in Latin America by 2015,” said Dr. Neeraj Mistry, Managing Director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases. “As we continue to work together to improve water and sanitation practices and community health programs, we will not only help millions of people currently suffering from neglected diseases but change the future for the next generation.”
“We aim at fighting these diseases with an integrated approach, bridging the existing gap in access to quality health services and water and sanitation in Latin America and the Caribbean,“ said Ferdinando Regalia, Chief of the Social Protection and Health Division of the IDB. ”We believe that NTD control is key for the implementation of an effective poverty alleviation strategy in the region.”
PAHO, which celebrates its 110th anniversary this year, is the oldest public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.
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About neglected diseases
Neglected infectious diseases persist under conditions of poor housing and lack of access to basic services such as drinking water and sanitation. They affect mainly poor people living in remote or rural areas, urban slums or conflict zones.
In the Americas, neglected diseases with significant impact include:
- In the Americas, 45 million children under 15 have intestinal parasites, which cause nutritional problems and have an impact on physical and cognitive development.
Lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis):
- Lymphatic filariasis is a parasitic disease caused by worms, which after years of infection can result in deformed limbs and genitals.
- More than 11 million people in the Americas are at risk of lymphatic filariasis, in Brazil, Guyana, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
- Treatment costs less than US$1 per person per year.
- The main interventions are vector control, health education, improved access to water and sanitation, and mass treatment with the appropriate drugs in affected communities.
- Transmission of lymphatic filariasis has been interrupted in Costa Rica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
- Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of blindness and is caused by a bacterium.
- Nearly 50 million people live in risk areas in Latin America.
- Repeated infections with trachoma in childhood can lead to blindness in adulthood.
Onchocerciasis (river blindness):
- Onchocerciasis is produced by infection with a parasite transmitted through fly bites.
- Six countries in the Americas have foci of transmission of onchocerciasis, with 500,000 people living in risk areas for transmission.
- Colombia is in the process of certifying elimination of onchocerciasis.
- Blindness caused by onchocerciasis has been considered eliminated in the Americas since 2007.
- Schistosomiasis is a chronic parasitic disease acquired through contact with water polluted by schistosoma parasites.
- In the Americas there are approximately 25 million people at risk of schistosomiasis in Brazil, Saint Lucia, Suriname, and Venezuela.
- The antiparasitic treatment to combat schistosomiasis costs only 20–30 cents per infected person.
- In areas where intestinal parasites are transmitted through soil and schistosomiasis is present, treatment for both can be provided in an integrated manner.