Lords Question for Short Debate on Health: Neglected Tropical Diseases February 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in combating neglected tropical diseases since the London Declaration in 2012; and how that issue will feature in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals health agenda.

My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce today’s debate on progress in combating neglected tropical diseases and I draw attention to my non-financial interests in health and development, particularly as a trustee of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the Malaria Consortium. I am also delighted that what many would consider an abstruse and minority interest subject has attracted such a large and expert speakers list—and even an equally distinguished audience in the Moses Room—and I look forward to hearing the contributions.

I am also glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Bates, here today as the Minister replying. I welcome him to our world of worms, snails, flukes and flies, the vectors of the group of parasitic and bacterial diseases that are categorised as neglected tropical diseases—NTDs. Of course, these diseases—afflictions such as river blindness, human hookworm and elephantiasis—are not actually part of our world as people who live in rich, developed countries. They are the diseases of the world’s poorest people, predominantly the rural poor. For them, NTDs are far from abstruse or a specialised interest; they are illnesses that affect one in six of the world’s population and blight the development of half a billion of the world’s poorest children.

Although NTDs do not cause as many immediate deaths as AIDS, TB and malaria, they kill, they maim and disfigure and they stunt and disable, causing decades of pain and, often, isolation. These diseases not only have direct effects but also weaken the immune system, cause anaemia, put infected individuals at higher risk of contracting other diseases and impair the ability to resist infection. They increase the risks in pregnancy and childbirth and they can have a negative effect on the efficacy of treatments for diseases such as TB. The link in particular between genital schistosomiasis ?and HIV infection, particularly in young women, has not been taken seriously enough in the past. Beyond those health effects, NTDs also form a terrible barrier to education and employment. They are not only the diseases of poverty; they are the diseases that cause poverty. Combating NTDs is therefore one of the best routes to cutting the cycle of poverty itself and to the sustainable development that we all seek.

The good news is that, unlike with many diseases, we have many of the tools necessary to combat those afflictions. We know that the combination of mass drug administration and water and sanitation projects, for example, can result in dramatic benefits and reduction in the incidence of disease. With concerted effort, with research into new vaccines, new diagnostics, new insecticides and medicines, with improved mapping and monitoring, with operational research, we could make much more progress. Much of that work is in train in academic institutions, in the voluntary sector and in the countries themselves.

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