Lords Short Question for Debate on Neglected Tropical Diseases February 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects of Neglected Tropical Diseases in impairing social and economic development in developing countries in the light of the publication of the third progress report of the 2012 London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to open this debate on neglected tropical diseases, which I will refer to as NTDs. This is the third debate we have had on this subject in as many years. I thank my noble friend Lady Hayman for her leadership in initiating ?the previous two debates. Certainly this House cannot be accused of neglecting these diseases. Nor should we: they are of huge global health and socioeconomic importance, as is now being recognised. Coincidentally, this Wednesday former US President Jimmy Carter will give a talk in this House convened by the Lord Speaker about one NTD, guinea worm disease, and its eradication.

NTDs are a group of infections associated with poverty in tropical and sub-tropical countries. Some, such as rabies, have a high mortality rate but most are characterised by their chronicity and high levels of disability such as gross disfigurement, blindness and inability to work. As such, sufferers are unable to be productive within their already poor communities and instead become a burden on the very limited healthcare resources of their countries. More than 1 billion people are affected in 149 countries worldwide. It is estimated that some 300,000 deaths per year are caused by NTDs.

However, until recently, in comparison with for example HIV, TB and malaria, these diseases received very modest international attention and support. The bundling and aggregation of these diseases and their branding as “neglected” was a masterstroke of public health communication. In 2012, WHO published its road map laying out targets for the control, elimination or eradication of 17 NTDs by 2020. Momentum gathered pace, with the London Declaration on NTDs in 2012 enshrining further commitments. Last year, the UN sustainable development goals to 2030 included NTDs within goal 3, aimed at “healthy lives” and “well-being for all” people.

This progress is substantially contingent upon the massive commitment by the pharmaceutical industries to donate key drugs essential for many of the control programmes. Donations worth a staggering $3.8 billion per year are a massive gesture of corporate generosity. While there is still some need for research to develop drugs for some NTDs and situations, there is available now a free toolkit of drugs for many NTDs.

Notable among these drugs is ivermectin, the mass administration of which to populations in Africa and Central and South America has massively reduced the incidence of clinical onchocerciasis—river blindness. Noble Lords may be aware that the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015 was awarded partly for the discovery and development of ivermectin by Campbell and Omura. Noble Lords may not be aware that this drug was in fact developed and initially marketed for veterinary use in 1981 as a wormer for cattle and other species. It was so successful commercially that the parent company, Merck, was able to commit to donate ivermectin for the control of onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis or elephantiasis for as long as needed. I mention this not only because of its significance in NTD control but to highlight the connectivity between human health and veterinary science—the so-called “one health” concept. That relationship is particularly close with respect to human tropical diseases.

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