One morning during my time in the Nigerian army, I woke up with painfully swollen eyes and itching skin. Concerned, I visited the local clinic, where they ran tests and offered me the chance to see the culprit up close. What I saw under the microscope was an image I’ll never forget: dozens of tiny worms crawling around my skin. I’d contracted a neglected tropical disease (NTD) whose name I couldn’t even pronounce – onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness.
I was fortunate enough to be treated quickly and avoid any lasting symptoms like permanent blindness. Instead, I was able to pursue a career in business and invest my resources into worthy causes like NTDs, polio and education. But millions of others across Africa aren’t so lucky.
NTDs are a group of infectious diseases that collectively affect over one billion of the world’s poorest people. The most prevalent NTDs in sub-Saharan Africa include lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharzia), soil-transmitted helminths (intestinal worms), and trachoma.
Left untreated, NTDs debilitate and disable, causing cognitive impairments and keep children out of school; preventing parents from working and tending to farmland; and further marginalizing individuals from already disadvantaged communities.
The toll of these entirely preventable and treatable diseases on Africa’s families and economies is enormous. Simply put, NTDs are keeping the continent from achieving its full potential.
The investment case is simple. First, it is a proven way to improve local economies in Africa. For every dollar invested in NTD control in sub-Saharan Africa, at least $50 is saved in economic productivity. Meeting the World Health Organization (WHO)’s targets for the five most common NTDs in this region would save $52 billion by 2030.
The ripple effects of preventing and treating NTDs are massive. When more children are in school and more adults are working, entire families, communities and nations will thrive. Investing in NTDs is one of the best ways to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of ending poverty and ensuring prosperity for all.
Second, investing in NTDs would alleviate tremendous suffering in Africa. The region bears over 40% of the global burden of NTDs, with hundreds of millions of people affected by one or more of these diseases – for example, schistosomiasis alone affects an estimated 192 million across sub-Saharan Africa.
Across our continent, NTDs needlessly disable, disfigure and stigmatize millions of people who are already suffering from poor sanitation, unsafe water, crowded living conditions, and limited access to medical services. Investing in ending NTDs is not only the smart thing to do; it’s also the right thing to do.
Finally, simple solutions and effective programmes already exist – they just need to be scaled up. Fortunately, all five of the most common NTDs in Africa can be effectively treated using low-cost, proven interventions. NTD efforts are backed by the largest-ever drug donation programme, valued at $4 billion annually, and industry partners have donated over 5.3 billion tablets of NTD treatments since the launch of the 2012 London Declaration. This is making NTD programs more cost-effective and far-reaching than ever before.
Dozens of other partners are also deeply committed to this issue. The END Fund, for example, has helped distribute over $300 million worth of treatment to nearly 59 million people at risk of NTDs in 20 countries across sub-Saharan Africa. I am proud to say that the TY Danjuma Foundation provides grants to local community health initiatives, including the Mission to Save the Helpless, which supports control and elimination efforts for NTDs like onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis in Nigeria.
And this May, WHO’s Africa Regional Office and its partners made a major step forward when they launched the Expanded Special Project for Elimination of NTDs (ESPEN). ESPEN will accelerate progress against NTDs in Africa by working to fill gaps and improving coordination across national NTD programmes.
But to address an issue so immense and so closely tied to Africa’s future, this field urgently needs more resources. We need our leaders from Africa and around the world – in both politics and business – to think even bigger and bolder.
Government leaders must ensure NTD programmes are sustainably integrated into community health efforts including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), education, and nutrition. Philanthropists must be partners, providing support for NTD programs and related efforts. Industry partners must help to improve supply chain and drug delivery, and raise awareness about NTD prevention and treatment.
Imagine how greatly Africa’s economy would benefit if the millions of people affected by NTDs received the treatment they need – if more children could go to school, study hard and become Africa’s next and biggest-ever generation of entrepreneurs.
I was lucky enough to escape a lifetime of blindness. It’s up to all of us, as global and African leaders, to ensure everyone else is able to do the same. It’s time for us to end the neglect and make one of the best investments we can make for our people, for our nations and for Africa. Let’s do it together.
*Theophilus Danjuma is the Chairman and Founder of the TY Danjuma Foundation and Grand Patron of MITOSATH (Mission To Save The Helpless).