Killer Diseases of Continent’s Poor (Africa)

AllAfrica.com, Pamela Olet, 31 March 2010

Sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, leprosy, helminthiasis, trachoma, leishmaniasis, Buruli ulcers, schistomiaisis and yaws are among neglected diseases that still ravage lives covertly as nations publicise tuberculosis, malaria and Aids.

High levels of illiteracy reduce the disease perception index, shrouding them in the belief in witchcraft. The stigma attached to most of the diseases further torments the victims into an otherwise early but a preventable death.

These diseases rarely feature on national or regional poverty eradication strategies yet they cause disabilities and deaths to the very populations already hard hit by poverty. And the irony is that these diseases are curable and have been eradicated in the developed world.

Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) is a conventional term for chronic and disabling diseases that are prevalent within poor populations in the tropical developing nations. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to a number of these diseases.

Africa continues to pay a handsome price for neglecting these diseases that are silently stealing the strides made in economic growth. The diseases occur in remote areas and affect the poor, a scenario made worse by inaccessibility or unavailability of healthcare for timely and effective treatment.

High levels of illiteracy reduce the disease perception index, shrouding them in the belief in witchcraft. The stigma attached to most of the diseases further torments the victims into an otherwise early but a preventable death.

The most disheartening aspect of this problem is that despite most of these diseases having effective cure they continue to disable and claim many lives. These are diseases for total eradication with just a little good will from governments.

Africa is home to countless health problems against a measly financial might, so setting priorities is inevitable. NTDs which don’t arouse enough “sensational” publicity don’t get a mention in the national budgets. Planners treat NTDs as threats, only itemised as emergencies. Worse, data is unavailable on NTDs, whose victims often suffer and succumb unreported.

According to World Health Organisation, 60 million people are at risk of infection with sleeping sickness in Africa, 300,000 new cases occur annually, but due to negligence, less than 30,000 cases are reported.

Conflicts in Africa perpetuate the flare- up of these diseases, by making timely intervention a task in futility. Political instabilities hinder eradication, which call for a regional approach. Past outbreaks of sleeping sickness have closely been associated with civil unrests in Uganda, Angola and Congo.

The trans-boundary nature of NTDs, means any remaining foci of such diseases in countries with civil unrests serve as a potential source of the disease in future, making eradication difficult. The stigma attached to these diseases, and their association with poverty has served to cloud NTDs as advocacy and awareness creation efforts are diverted to the big three — tuberculosis, malaria and Aids.

Integration of NTDs in primary healthcare programmes can wipe out these diseases. Researches into the development and adoption of modern diagnostic technologies and awareness creation in endemic areas have helped in the eradication of these diseases in developed countries.

Partners are collaborating with local governments and medical research institutes in Africa. The US president early in the year promised to increase America’s global health fund from $65 million in 2010 to $155 million in 2011.

But the greatest challenge in the NTDs fight is the disjointed efforts being channelled into poor countries. A synchronised approach can rid the universe of neglected diseases and directly contribute to Millennium Development Goals.

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