On March 14, Research!America hosted a neglected tropical disease panel at the Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) conference, “Are NTDs a Growing Threat? Research, Access and Next Steps.” The conversation was moderated by Karen Goraleski, Executive Director of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) and featured the following panelists: Rachel Cohen, Regional Executive Director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi); Brian D’Cruz, Emergency Physician with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières North America; LeAnne Fox, Medical Officer and Team Lead on NTDs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Kristy Murray, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine and Mark Rosenberg, President and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health.
The panelists first discussed the global burden of neglected tropical diseases. Moderator Karen Goraleski started the afternoon by pointing out that “global health is America’s health,” and that sentiment was echoed throughout. NTDs all over the world were mentioned from sleeping sickness in remote villages of Africa to onchocerciasis in Columbia to dengue fever and West Nile in Texas and Florida. These diseases not only impact the health of affected individuals, but ultimately hamper economic development. Specifically, Dr. Fox asked how “an individual with an enormous leg could reach their earning potential?’ or how could a child with a helminth infection learn or focus as well in school?”
Unfortunately, the answer is that individuals affected by these debilitating diseases cannot reach their full potential. In the face of these extreme health and economic burdens, all panelists highlighted the importance of research in global efforts to combat NTDs. It is crucial to develop new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines to combat these diseases. Sufficient tools simply do not exist for many NTDs and many available tools are extremely difficult or impractical for use in low-resource settings. When reflecting on his on-the-ground work in Africa, Dr. Cruz said that he “can clearly see the need for new diagnostics and treatment strategies – there is so much more to be done in screening and care for neglected patients.”
Although these types of research projects have the potential to save millions of lives, funding is often insufficient. Because NTDs disproportionately affect people in poverty, there is limited market demand for new tools and thus, the private sector typically has little incentive for investment. Unfortunately, public sources of funding are also scarce and recent sequestration cuts have jeopardized NTD work at NIH, CDC and DoD. However, Ms. Cohen pointed out that new models of public-private collaboration are extremely promising. She stressed the importance of a mix of public and private funding, particularly in the field of drug development, where publicly funded research is an excellent base, but requires private sector involvement for mass production of drugs. She noted that factors such as motivated CEOs, emerging markets and corporate social responsibility efforts have begun to push the private sector to be more involved in the fight against NTDs.
The final theme that emerged from the panel centered around Dr. Rosenberg’s remark that “compassion is crucial in the fight against NTDs. Even if there is no threat of these diseases to us in the U.S., they affect over one billion people around the world and we should care because it’s about equity and justice.” Research!America’s polling supports that Americans are a generous group and support global health. Ms. Goraleski wrapped up by saying that we must harness this sentiment and intent, starting with everyone in attendance. If we can work together to raise awareness of NTDs and advocate for more funding to advance NTD research, one day we can have the tools necessary to eliminate these diseases.
–Morgan McCloskey, global health intern