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Thought Leader Uncategorized Global Health

Neglected… No more

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Michael Nyenhuis, President and CEO of MAP International

The big news recently in the Atlanta global health community is the $28.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Task Force for Global Health targeting “Neglected Tropical Diseases” (NTDs). The World Health Organization calls these diseases neglected because, well, they have been – for the most part.

Here in Atlanta, efforts have been underway for years to address NTDs – 17 diseases ranging from intestinal worms to leprosy (yes, leprosy is still around). Local agencies and researchers have toiled behind the scenes to bring health and healing to billions around the world threatened by these diseases. I will share a few examples of their successes below. First, however, a description of the new grant.

The Decatur-based Task Force established the Neglected Tropical Disease Support Center earlier this year in response to an international declaration called the London Declaration. The declaration – signed one year ago in January by governments, non-governmental humanitarian agencies, pharmaceutical companies, donors and others – pledged to end suffering caused by NTDs. The substantial new Gates grant will allow the NTD Support Center to promote operational research needed to ensure the success of control and elimination programs targeting NTDs.

The grant ensures that the new NTD center, the Task Force itself and Atlanta will continue to play a key role in the rising global effort to combat NTDs. Here are three examples of ways we have already been leading in this area:

First, the Task Force had previously hosted the Lymphatic Filariasis Support Center, also a Gates-funded project. Lymphatic filariasis (LF), commonly known as “elephantiasis,” is one of the world’s most debilitating parasitic diseases impacting an estimated 120 million people. Beginning in 2006, the center helped to coordinate global efforts to eliminate LF. My agency, MAP International, has worked for several years on LF as well in coastal Kenya, where an estimated 50,000 men and women face significant disability and social stigma as a result of LF.

Second, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has led a number of NTD focused initiatives, including studying Chagas disease in Peru. Chagas, caused by an insect bite, can cause life-threatening heart and digestive disorders. It is endemic to rural areas of Mexico, Central and South America. CDC staff have worked to understand the basic epidemiology of the disease in order to design control methods and improve management and treatment programs.

Third, a researcher at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health continues to  work on one of the most neglected of the NTDs – Buruli ulcer, a debilitating skin and soft tissue infection similar to leprosy that can lead to permanent disfigurement and disability. Ellen Whitney, who has served as a consultant to the World Health Organization on the disease, and her partners are working to better understand Buruli’s origin, transmission and prevalence. Whitney has also worked alongside nonprofit agencies including MAP and the American Leprosy Mission carrying out Buruli treatment and education programs in the field.

Those are just three examples. There are many more. While the NTD Support Center is new, work on neglected diseases in Atlanta is not. We continue to work to strip the word “neglected” from the name.

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