22 February, 2016
The diseases afflict more than a billion people around the world but the media gives little attention to them.
They are Neglected Tropical Diseases or NTDs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified 17 of them, including rabies, leprosy, river blindness, dengue and Chikungunya. About 534,000 people a year die from them, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
They strike the poorest people in tropical and sub-tropical areas, often with inadequate sanitation. They cost developing economies billions of dollars every year, according to the WHO.
Dr. Neeraj Mistry is the managing director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. He said, "More than a billion people affected by Neglected Tropical Diseases don't have anyone lobbying for them. They don't have any voice." He added, "Issues with the loudest voice get the most attention. That's the way policy is made."
But experts say that is changing because of Zika.
People can catch the Zika virus after being bitten by an infected Aedes mosquito. This is the same mosquito that can spread dengue, Chikungunya and yellow fever.
Zika was first identified in 1947. The virus was largely ignored until the recent outbreak in Brazil. The WHO declared it a global health emergency and warned that Zika could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas this year.
Andy Wright is Vice President of Global Health Programmes at the drug company GSK. He said, "Any situation like the current one with Zika puts a spotlight on emerging or relatively unknown diseases that have not attracted sufficient attention or investment."
"There's a global vulnerability to these diseases," said Mistry. "It's not just a function of poor countries."
NTDs are showing up in developed countries
Because of global air travel, people can go around the world in 24 hours. They may contract a disease in a country in the developing world, not show any symptoms, then fly to the developed world and transmit it to people there. Ebola is an example.
Dr. Jon Andrus is the Director of Vaccine Advocacy and Education at the Sabin Institute. He said diseases that only affected tropical areas before can now spread to other parts of the world.
"Infection is only a plane ride away," he said.
Climate change also creates environments for the transmission of diseases by mosquitoes and black flies, according to Andrus. Crowded urban slums and plastic litter on the ground can also serve as breeding sites for mosquitoes.
Two years ago, there were outbreaks of dengue in the American states of Florida and Texas.
Global initiatives to combat NTDs
In 2012, the U.S., the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, 13 drug companies, and several global health foundations signed a London Declaration on NTDs. The declaration was to support the WHO's initiative to control or eliminate 10 diseases by the year 2020. The campaign promised almost $800 million for drug donation programs.
As part of the London Declaration, the drug companies would share information to speed up the development of new treatments. In addition, they agreed to supply billions of doses of drugs every year to help the world's poorest people.
Mistry said these programs reached 800 million people in 2014. He hoped they would be made available to more than a billion people by 2020.
"It's an art to be the broker and diplomat and win trust and support from sectors with very different issues, such as NGOs, corporations, and foundations," he said. He added that the key was to find common goals. Government can serve as an effective broker.
Need for more prevention
Experts called for greater focus on prevention to avoid the next global epidemic.
"What's frustrating for me is that we're not more proactive in prevention of these outbreaks," said Andrus. "It's not just the vaccine. It's good public health practice and surveillance. We need better diagnostic tests to detect these outbreaks earlier."
It's important to control the carriers of these diseases. He advocated use of insecticides, mosquito nets, and long-sleeved clothing as ways to combat mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika and dengue.
Mistry added the attention on "Zika will cause an increase in public-private partnerships to combat Neglected Tropical Diseases. It's the only way we'll find solutions to these problems."
I'm Mary Gotschall.
Mary Gotschall wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
afflict – v. to cause pain or suffering to (someone or something)
neglect – v. to fail to take care of or to give attention to (someone or something)
tropical – n. relating to the part of the world that is near the equator where the weather is very warm
inadequate – adj. not enough or not good enough
sanitation – n. the process of keeping places free from dirt, infection, disease, etc., by removing waste, trash and garbage, by cleaning streets, etc.
lobbying – n. the effort by an organized group of people who work together to influence government decisions that relate to a particular industry, issue, etc.
spotlight – n. public attention or notice
vulnerability – n. the act of being open to attack, harm, or damage
transmission – n. the act or process by which something is spread or passed from one person or thing to another
surveillance – n. the act of using electronic devices to watch people or things
diagnostic – adj. used to help identify a disease, illness, or problem