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Globalization

More efforts needed to fight neglected tropical diseases

More than one billion people in poor countries are affected by dangerous infections, but they don't get proper treatment. DW spoke to John Kufuor, Special Envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

DW: More than one billion people worldwide are affected by neglected tropical diseases. That's one in six people. Why are these diseases neglected if so many people are affected?

John Kufuor: They are so common and so general in the poorest parts of the world, including much of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even as the world pays so much attention to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, somehow not much attention is given to these diseases that are an affliction for people all over the place.  

But is it because it's the world's poor who are affected that these diseases have been forgotten and because they have no purchasing power?

That could be a contributing factor. But as you observed, many societies tend to be marginalized. They tend to be in remote areas and don't tend to have a voice.

Which disease of the 17 diseases counted among the neglected tropical diseases would you say is the most dangerous one for Ghana?

They are all dangerous. Being overcome by blindness is really like being condemned. People afflicted by elephantiasis, or the swelling of the lymph, can even limit them from moving. Can you imagine a subsistence farmer in some remote part scratching the land for a living being afflicted with elephantiasis? That would disenable him from moving. So how would he live? How would he go to the farm? Or if he has some child that is afflicted. How does he go to school? How can he even pay attention to learn?  So I believe all these diseases are important. Unfortunately, it takes like one packet of assorted pills to fight all these diseases together.

Girl suffering from lymphatic filariasis sitting on the floor (photo: GlaxoSmithKline)

A girl suffering from lymphatic filariasis

How did you tackle neglected tropical diseases in Ghana?

I assumed presidency in 2001 and stayed in power for eight years. My government took care that diseases like guinea worm, which was quite prevalent in many parts of the country could be eradicated. Fortunately for my government, we had international partners like the Carter Group that voluntarily came and helped the government. Its mission was to provide good portable water for as many people as possible, even in remote parts of the country and to contribute the needed methods, the pails and vaccines from pharmaceutical companies. And then there were the government's own efforts. My government launched the national health insurance scheme with very affordable premiums that all people could access. And even those who could not access it, the state assumed responsibility to cover them. By the time I left the office in 2008, guinea worm was virtually eradicated. Through a gain in enhanced knowledge, I enabled people, including some of them very poor, to know that they shouldn't depend on untreated, stagnate water for drinking. Some of the diseases also come from contact with contaminated soils.

But what about vaccines? Are there vaccines and medicines available  to fight and treat these diseases?

We get a lot of help from pharmaceutical companies from around the world. For instance, with the campaign I'm helping to advocate, we have learned that with as little as 50 US cents support for drugs and methods per head per year, we can really eliminate and in many cases eradicate these diseases.    

In addition to treating people, isn't it also important to include animals to prevent the spread of rabies?

It's important but, again, that's a function of knowledge. You have large groups of poor communities, which tend to be ignorant. People may not be aware of the diseases that come from infected animals. So, again, education and information are important. This should be pushed by governments and international civil society organizations so that more people know. And those who like to keep pets likes dogs and cats would then know the necessity to vaccinate or treat the pets from time to time so they don't become agents to spread disease.

A boy receives a treatment (photo: GlaxoSmithKline)

Many people in rural areas don't have access to medical treatment

As you said, knowledge is key but, of course, people have to be able to afford the vaccines.

Yes. I believe that when governments address themselves to this facility, governments should be able to afford or least subsidize the efforts of people to resist the spread of disease.

What are the next steps to get rid of all the 17 diseases in the future?

Internationally, I believe the UN agencies like the WHO should be backing a global campaign. Of course, there should be a number of non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations and there should be national efforts at government levels as well as schools and public health organizations. All these should work together.    

Ghana's former president John Kufuor is Special Envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

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