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African leaders have adopted a new index that helps track progress in mass treatment of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Five NTDs — lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminths and trachoma — were added to African heads of state’s annual scorecard or index on disease progress last month (28 January) during the 30th African Union summit in Ethiopia.

“It also played a role in identifying where treatment was no longer needed, saving millions of donated medicines.”

Thoko Elphick-Pooley, Uniting to Combat

The index ranks African countries in their mass treatment coverage of the five NTDs, with Swaziland, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Togo and Ghana respectively taking the first six spots in 2016. For example, Swaziland had a coverage of 90 per cent while that of Ghana was 70 per cent.
African heads of state review the scorecard every year, and the move puts NTDs alongside malaria and maternal and child health as top health priorities for the continent.

The index shows that 40 million more people in Sub-Saharan Africa received preventive treatment for at least one of the diseases in 2016 compared to 2015, while over 50 per cent countries improved their mass treatment coverage between 2015 and 2016, with Togo certified by the WHO as eliminating lymphatic filariasis.
It was created by the WHO and Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases using data reported to the WHO by the national NTD programmes.
According to Christopher Fitzpatrick, health economist at WHO’s Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, the index uses the average percentage of the population covered by interventions against individual NTDs.
Fitzpatrick adds that the progress in extending coverage for NTDs interventions is driven primarily through programmes from national level to community volunteers, to deliver donated medicines to people who need them.

Thoko Elphick-Pooley, director, Uniting to Combat NTDs Support Centre, says that the index shows how countries are progressing towards reaching everyone in need of treatment in line with universal health coverage.

A regular average calculation can see good performance in one disease over compensating for poor performance in another, Elphick-Pooley explains.

Elphick-Pooley adds that using mobile phone technology, funded by the UK government, played a key role in efficient NTDs mapping in countries such as Benin, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia.
“It also played a role in identifying where treatment was no longer needed, saving millions of donated medicines,” she tells SciDev.Net.
Africa carries about 40 per cent of the NTDs burden, but although the global average coverage is almost 63 per cent, Africa has 58 coverage, she emphasises.
The index calls for establishing a task force on NTDs at the African Union to regularly monitor and report on progress on neglected tropical diseases. John H. Amuasi, executive director of the African Research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, tells SciDev.Net that improved diagnostics, surveillance and new combination therapies are helping fight NTDs in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But Amuasi explains that most of the cutting-edge research for NTDs are being carried out outside the region, where Europe and North America are leading the charge.
“It is necessary that African countries set aside funds for African researchers …for NTDs research ranging from drug discovery, novel diagnostics, through to operational research, and social science studies to eliminate NTDs,” he notes.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

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