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The UK is leading global efforts to eliminate tropical diseases

As Vice-Chair of the APPG for Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases, I wrote this article for The House magazine, published on Politics Home.

"Earlier this month, 53 Commonwealth Heads of Government convened in the UK to reaffirm common values, address shared global challenges and agree on how to work to create a better future for all Commonwealth citizens. One theme that inspired conversations was ‘Vision for the Commonwealth’ and the elimination of trachoma, one of 20 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Motivated by the devastation NTDs cause in the developing world, the UK has a long history of cross-parliamentary support led by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria & Neglected Tropical Diseases, of which I am a Vice-Chair. NTD investments are widely recognised for their value for money, and successive governments have used funding and influence to help catalyse the academic, public and private sector to take action. This global leadership was reiterated at CHOGM when the International Development Secretary, announced a £20m fund to support trachoma elimination efforts in ten Commonwealth countries.

In light of the significant social and economic consequences trachoma has on communities, including disability, stigma and exclusion, the fund will address a range of global priorities set in the Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty reduction, good health and well-being, quality education and clean water and sanitation. Trachoma is responsible for up to US$8bn in lost productivity every year and exacerbates poverty of the communities it affects by preventing them from working. However, thanks to UK aid and other donors, the WHO-endorsed SAFE Strategy to eliminate trachoma has been scaled up, helping to reduce the number of people living in endemic regions from 325 million in 2011 to 182 million in 2016. 

The two-year fund will significantly boost elimination efforts in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Pakistan, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. With 52 million people across 21 countries at risk, this funding will be key to developing a more sustainable and prosperous future for all citizens.  

UK aid has long supported work to eliminate trachoma. The DfID-funded SAFE Program has to date managed over 100,000 trichiasis surgeries and distributed over 40 million antibiotic treatments to almost 18 million people in Chad, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia. It has also supported important water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) work that educates communities about trachoma prevention and empowers them to improve their own health.

In partnership with the US Agency for International Development, UK aid funded the world’s largest ever-infectious disease survey, the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP) between 2012 and 2016. Using smart phone technology GTMP collected data from 2.6 million people in 29 countries, accurately identifying where trachoma interventions needed to be implemented. The methodology behind GTMP is now being continued by a service called Tropical Data, to provide real time data to ministries of health, ensuring they have the information needed for effective planning. Tropical Data is also being asked to support baseline mapping of other NTDs in the 2012 London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases, including schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis.

The UK’s commitment has been supported by additional donors including The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust’s Trachoma Initiative, which is working towards the elimination of trachoma in 12 Commonwealth countries, to leave a lasting legacy in honour of Her Majesty The Queen. Moreover, partnerships with the private sector have resulted in over 700 million drugs being donated since 1999.

As the UK expands its support for people with disabilities at the first Global Disability Summit, to be held in London in July, lessons from UK funded trachoma programmes should be shared so that all people with disabilities are empowered and no one is left behind.

The public can be proud of its contribution to trachoma elimination efforts. With new and continued donor partnerships, endemic country government leadership, opportunities to promote cross-parliamentary learnings to champion and address global health challenges, the global elimination of trachoma is achievable. We have the strategy to eliminate trachoma and the time to do it is now." 

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Catherine West MP

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