Rwanda: Will the Next Pandemic Come From NTDs?

On January 30 every year, people everywhere come together to observe World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day.

The purpose of this day is to reflect on the suffering caused by NTDs; celebrate those who are engaged in tackling the burden and the accomplishments of the global NTD community; as well as gather more support towards their control, elimination, and eradication.

Even if these diseases are stigmatised, marginalised, and neglected by the global public health system, the WHO anticipates that the next pandemic might come from this set of 21 diseases that disproportionately affect poor people, especially women, and children.

This is a group of 21 fatal and debilitating diseases that affect poor and marginalised communities. They are but not limited to soil-transmitted helminths, bilharzia, dengue, snakebites, leprosy, and noma which was recently added to the list.

Scientists expect that the next pandemic might come from a bigger list of diseases that will affect some parts of Africa, Europe, and South America among many other regions. They exemplify dengue as one of the diseases that might take off and hit hard the region.

Dengue is a mosquito-borne disease that is mostly present in tropical and sub-tropical areas. Someone is infected with dengue from daytime mosquito bites and some of the fatal disease’s symptoms include sudden high fever, severe headache, joint and muscle pain, fatigue, and others.

Plenty of dengue cases go unrecorded since the disease can also be asymptomatic but annually, around 400 million dengue infections are recorded worldwide according to Drugs for Neglected Tropical Diseases figures, and public health officials have warned that near-record levels of transmission are expected this year. Bangladesh is currently experiencing its worst-ever outbreak, with more than 1,000 deaths.

The illness has been affecting much of Asia and Latin America causing an estimated deaths of 20,000 people each year, according to several media reports. The significant hike in the trend of the disease has risen eight-fold globally since the year 2000 largely caused by climate change, increased movement of people, and urbanisation.

Previously, the WHO Chief Scientist, Dr Jeremy Farrar who has been working on Neglected Tropical Diseases for 18 years in Vietnam, said that dengue fever will become a major threat in parts of Africa, Southern Europe, and the Southern United States in this decade.

As global warming makes new areas hospitable to the mosquitoes that spread it, the infection is likely to take off and become endemic in parts of Africa, the US, and Europe as well.

This is expected to put acute pressure on health systems in many countries of course since it will require a high ratio of nurses to patients.

A lack of knowledge of those nurses and other healthcare workers on the symptoms of dengue, as well as an absence of a standardised case definition for reporting dengue cases, might undermine national health systems once the outbreak erupts.

Media reports indicate limited and inadequate surveillance systems and resource constraints, especially in Africa, which heavily contributes to the true disease burden remaining unknown. To make matters even more difficult, many dengue cases can be asymptomatic, which further compounds control efforts.

There is no specific treatment for dengue but its vaccine is available.

As we celebrate World NTDs Day, it is essential to recognise that efforts to tackle NTDs are a global health success story, but the impact of dengue and other diseases will be threatening hard-fought progress if no immediate actions are taken.

If the spread of dengue is to be halted, there needs to be a shift from ad hoc responses to isolated outbreaks towards long-term, integrated programming.

We can make history by ending Neglected Tropical Diseases because they are treated and preventable. We have the medicines, we have the power, we have the partnerships and we have the plan. We can make history by putting an end to NTDs in our lifetime and lifting over a billion people from misery to hope. Together, we can unite and act to eliminate Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Bertrand Byishimo is a Global Health Corps Fellowship Alumni and a Project Coordinator for Bilharzia Storytelling Lab Rwanda Chapter.

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