By Dr Maria Rebollo Polo, ESPEN team leader at World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Africa.
Of the 1.5 billion people who are affected by Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) worldwide, women and girls are disproportionately suffering. Women need to be more visible if we are to eliminate NTDs by 2020 and a gendered perspective is crucial to understanding how this can be achieved.
The reasons for this issue cannot be isolated – not only do biological and physical factors lead to an increased vulnerability, but socio-cultural factors greatly increase the risk of women and girls contracting an NTD. According to a 2016 report by Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases, women and girls perform two thirds of water collection, exposing them to water-borne diseases such as schistosomiasis. Likewise, women are also typically the primary caregivers and are therefore far more likely to come into contact with NTDs such as trachoma infection. Indeed, research has suggested that women account for up to 80% of disability-adjusted Life Years that are linked to blindness caused by trachoma.
The indirect impact of NTDs can also disproportionately affect women and girls. Women are more likely to give up their jobs or drop out of school in order to take care of a sick family member, which has a longer term negative economic impact and can place financial burdens on the family. The disfigurements and disabilities caused by NTDs can also lead to social stigma and result in a loss of social opportunities, such as employability or marriage.
Improving the provision of healthcare across Africa is an important priority, but to tackle challenges such as NTDs we need to ensure we equitably improve access to reach the most vulnerable populations such as women and children, and those communities most affected by poverty.
The Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN) is a World Health Organisation project which aims to eliminate the five NTDs amenable to Preventive Chemotherapy. Through this project we are building the capacity of African health leaders to best strengthen health systems and provide the quality NTD services that people in Africa deserve. Our data portal enables health ministries and stakeholders to share and exchange subnational programme NTD data and use this quality data for smarter decision-making for NTD control and elimination. This allows us to identify the most vulnerable in society to improve access to both prevention measures and treatment for those who need it.
Every person should be able to access the quality health services that they need without facing financial hardship. Accessing donated NTD medicines without out of pocket cost is critical. NTD interventions are fundamental to achieve Universal Health Coverage once and for all, protecting not only women, but everyone, everywhere.
Efforts to achieve Universal Health Coverage cannot be achieved without providing access to NTD intervention. By strengthening health systems, access to NTD prevention and treatment will improve. Meanwhile, our efforts to eliminate this group of diseases ultimately can put countries on the pathway to achieving UHC, and in turn improve the health, prosperity and happiness of its citizens.
This Universal Health Coverage Day it is vital that we group together to intensify our efforts to eliminate NTDs by 2030. With this kind of synergy, we will make it possible to accelerate our mission in order to reach Africa’s entire population, ensuring that we reach marginalized populations and address the inequalities that women and girls experience due to NTDs. No one should be left behind.