Life’s unexpected moments of insight can come from anywhere. It could be a chance conversation in an airport, a magazine article that grabs your attention or simply a moment of clarity when you think about something from a different perspective. My own personal insight about tackling neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) wasn’t one of these instant lightning-bolt experiences. Instead, it slowly crystallised into view over a series of months. It began with the Higher Life Foundation’s support for a mass drug administration (MDA) in rural Zimbabwe and culminated in a breakfast at the World Economic Forum sanctioned side event that was organized by private philanthropic initiative, the END Fund.
In November 2015, I joined the board of the Higher Life Foundation, a hands-on philanthropic education initiative created by the founders of Econet Wireless. My job was to help shape its growth strategy. I hadn’t yet made the connection in my mind between the kind of education we were focused on providing and the simple knowledge and information that was needed to battle NTDs. But it was Econet’s part in a public private initiative as the communications partner in an MDA that provided the answer.
Over 500 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa at risk of, and need, treatment for NTDs. These diseases include intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, blinding trachoma, and river blindness. Debilitating symptoms such as blindness, severe pain, and fatigue result in adults being unable to work and children unable to attend school. Without access to education it’s harder to learn about, let alone change behavior that breaks the cycle of these pernicious diseases which reinforce the link between poor health and poverty.
For communities this is a tragedy, but for economies it’s a serious impediment to growth. The latest figures show the profound influence NTDs have on prosperity, with sub-Saharan Africa predicted to save US$52 billion in purchasing power parity by 2030 if it meets the World Health Organization’s 2020 control and elimination goals for the five most common NTDs.
To frame the challenge, how could we combat NTDs to begin the process of protecting people whilst setting the economy on the road to a brighter future? The issue of how to deliver the available treatment to a country’s entire population through an MDA seemed to depend on logistics. But part of the solution for Zimbabwe in this case lay in information, in educating people about what simple steps they needed to take to be rid of these diseases and that it was as easy as turning up to get the free medicine.
Econet enabled its mobile network to be used, via a donation of millions of SMS messages, as part of a larger public private partnership for MDA with the government, NGOs, and pharmaceutical companies. SMS messages letting people know when drugs would be available in hundreds of districts were sent out on a huge scale, supporting other communications about the MDA. Without this means of educating people simply around a few key facts, it would have been hard to reach the 4 million people who ended up being treated.