With COVID-19 in retreat, there is some additional good news in public health.
Over the past few months, several countries around the world have confirmed the elimination of a neglected tropical disease (NTD). These advances are in large measure a result of American investment in global health. We should continue these vital efforts. We are in fact at a unique moment where lasting progress is possible, but only if we act decisively.
NTDs, of which there are more than 20, have afflicted human beings for centuries and continue to kill and debilitate millions every year. They are endemic to nearly 150 countries, and the greatest burdens are found in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, NTDs have increasingly been reported in higher-income countries like the United States. Of the 60 million people living across the Gulf Coast, 3 million to 4 million are infected with at least one NTD.
These diseases cripple communities and destabilize societies. They keep people out of work and children out of school, stunting economic growth and further entrenching cycles of poverty. Women and children are most at risk.
In 2006, Congress appropriated funds for the first time to the fight against NTDs, with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launching its NTD Program. Thanks to a coordinated global effort led by the World Health Organization and ministries of health, with unprecedented support from private companies and bilateral donors such as USAID, incredible progress has been made to end NTDs.
To date, more than 40 countries have eliminated at least one NTD and more than 600 million people no longer require treatment.
But we cannot stop there. NTDs should remain high on our country’s global health agenda until the harm and suffering they cause is a thing of the past.
One reason is the extraordinary return on investment fighting NTDs provides. Most NTDs can be prevented and treated for less than $0.50 per person. The private sector has played a unique and outsized role in making this possible. Most of the medicines needed to treat these diseases are donated — free of charge — by pharmaceutical companies and distributed to communities in need. In the last decade, more than 14 billion NTD treatments have been donated. In fact, every dollar invested by the U.S. in NTD programs leverages $26 in donated medicines, making it one of the best buys in global health.
Another reason is that reducing the burden of NTDs promotes economic development in other countries. This reduces the need for foreign assistance and grows markets for American products globally. U.S. leadership in global health also gives us a strategic advantage in diplomacy, just as it fortifies our ability to detect and guard against new disease threats.
Perhaps most importantly, eliminating the needless suffering and death caused by NTDs aligns with our values. Most of these diseases are entirely treatable and preventable at nominal cost.
Fortunately, there are concrete steps we can take to build on the historic progress of the last decade and finish the job.
Congress should fully fund NTD treatment efforts overseas through USAID. At a time when services are still recovering from COVID-19 disruptions, it is important we continue our efforts to combat these diseases. Congress should also plan to boost funding for NTD research through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With strong funding, Congress and its private partners could bring about the eradication of some, if not all, of these neglected tropical diseases. That would truly be a victory worth celebrating.
Roger Wicker, who represents Mississippi in the U.S. Senate, is the founder and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases. This op-ed originally appeard in The Hill, which you can read here.