GENEVA — The World Health Organization said Tuesday that unprecedented progress had been made in tackling many of the world's most disfiguring and disabling neglected tropical diseases over the past 10 years.
Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said there has been "record-breaking progress towards bringing ancient scourges like sleeping sickness and elephantiasis to their knees."
About 1.5 billion people in 149 countries, down from 1.9 billion in 2010, are affected by neglected tropical diseases (NTD), a group of 18 disorders that disproportionately affect the very poor.
In 2007, the WHO and a group of global partners devised a strategy for better tackling and controlling NTDs.
Five years ago, a group of nongovernmental organizations, private and public partners signed the London Declaration, committing greater support and resources to the elimination or eradication of 10 of the most common NTDs by the end of the decade.
"That has been a game changer in the expansion of NTD interventions worldwide," said Dirk Engel, director of the WHO's Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
Meeting on Wednesday
The WHO's fourth report on neglected tropical diseases was launched to coincide with a one-day meeting Wednesday at the agency's headquarters to take stock of what has been achieved in the fight against NTDs and to explore ways to move the process forward.
Engel said health ministers, representatives from pharmaceutical companies, academics, donors and philanthropists "will look at the changing landscape of NTDs" and explore better ways of integrating the fight against these diseases into global health and development.
The report described achievements made in controlling the debilitating diseases. For example, it noted that an estimated 1 billion people received 1.5 billion treatments donated by pharmaceutical companies for one or more NTDs in 2015 alone.
It cited dramatic successes in efforts to eliminate visceral leishmaniasis, a parasitic, disfiguring disease that attacks the internal organs.
"If you get it, it kills. There is no way out," said Engel.
The disease is prevalent in Southeast Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Engel said a subregional program was organized to provide early treatment with donated medicines and vector control through indoor residual spraying, similar to that used in malaria control.
"With those two interventions, you reduce the incidence of visceral leishmaniasis almost to nothing," said Engel. "And the aim was to have less than one case in 10,000 people at the subdistrict level, which is a tough target."
He noted that the disease had been eliminated in 82 percent of subdistricts in India, 97 percent of subdistricts in Bangladesh, and eliminated entirely in Nepal.
"This is a result that we had not anticipated a few years back," he said.
While Asia is burdened with the greatest number of NTD cases, Africa has the highest concentration of the diseases. Engel told VOA that between 450,000 and 500,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were infected by at least one tropical disease — but usually several — at the same time.
He said Africa was making excellent progress in controlling neglected tropical diseases. African sleeping sickness has been reduced from 37,000 new cases in 1999 to fewer than 3,000 cases in 2015, and Guinea worm disease has gone down "to only 25 human cases, putting eradication within reach," he said.
Engel noted that lymphatic filariasis, an infection transmitted by mosquitoes, causing enlargement of limbs and genitals, also was being brought under control.
"Some countries are lagging a bit behind. Some countries are actually doing fairly well," he said. "We have just acknowledged the first African country that has eliminated lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem — Togo."
He noted that so much progress has been made in the treatment of onchocerciasis, or river blindness, that "we are now thinking of setting a new target of elimination post-2020."
In another important advance, the report found that trachoma, the world's leading infectious cause of blindness, "has been eliminated as a public health problem" in Oman, Morocco and Mexico.
Neglected tropical diseases used to be prevalent throughout the world. Now, they are found only in tropical and subtropical regions with unsafe water, bad hygiene and sanitation, and poor housing conditions.
"Poor people living in remote, rural areas, urban slums or conflict zones are most at risk," said the report.
The World Health Organization said improving water and sanitation for 2.4 billion people globally who lack these basic facilities was key to making further progress in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.
Christopher Fitzpatrick, health economist in the WHO's department of tropical diseases, told VOA that the socioeconomic costs in terms of lost productivity and out-of-pocket health expenditures by people infected with NTDs is very high.
"It has been calculated that for every dollar invested [in improving water and sanitation infrastructure], there will be about $30 of return to affected individuals," he said.