Guest Author Lisa Schechtman is the Head of Policy and Advocacy for WaterAid in America.
Earlier this year, I attended a meeting of the Alliance for Global Elimination of Trachoma. I was there to represent safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), which are critical to the global strategy to eliminate blinding trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness. Partnerships such as these, which bring those from the water, sanitation and hygiene sector together with other health professionals, are vital in developing a holistic approach to tackling the root causes of trachoma, and other diseases known collectively as Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).
Worldwide, one billion people are affected by one or more NTD, many of which are linked to lack of access to high-quality water, sanitation and hygiene. For example, poor hygiene allows flies, attracted by dirty faces, to spread trachoma, or skin-to-skin contact to spread yaws. Sanitation and waste management could help control spread of these diseases in the first place. Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia), and guinea worm, also NTDs, are spread by infected snails or fleas that live in water contaminated due to a lack of sanitation.
While crucial to preventing NTDs, hygiene promotion takes targeted work with individuals and communities; it is not often prioritized and even less often measured and evaluated. Sanitation is one of the farthest off-track of all Millennium Development Goal targets, with 2.5 billion people still needing access to even a basic pit latrine. We still have a long way to go to reach universal access to WASH; yet, if we don’t address these neglected issues, we won’t succeed in addressing the consequences.
Neglected Topical Diseases have that name for a reason. They affect the most marginalized and forgotten members of our global community—those who live in extreme poverty, in rural areas “off the grid,” already affected by disabilities, chronic illness and other challenges. Though unknown to most Americans, these diseases can cause blindness, physical disabilities, impaired cognitive development, heart failure, and a host of other consequences, including death. Yet with holistic development and global health programs targeting the poorest people, NTDs can be prevented and ultimately eradicated as they have been here in the United States.
Eradication of NTDs requires focused responses in affected localities, to promote hygiene or control disease vectors such as flies and mosquitoes, but also broader attention to infrastructure basics, such as latrines. This requires political will, coordination, and innovative partnerships to challenge business as usual
From the U.S. President’s Global Health Initiative driving integration across sectors at the highest political levels, to partnerships between WaterAid and other national and international NGOs that ensure the right expertise is available for household-based sanitation drives, coordination of WASH and NTD control efforts is part of what makes progress possible.
An added value of focusing on Neglected Tropical Diseases is that it requires us to consider equity, dignity, and the most basic needs of the people most often left behind. In order to really eradicate many of these diseases, equitable WASH access must be a shared goal. Together, we must maintain—and accelerate—momentum, keep our promises, and forge new relationships to be sure we’re reaching those most at risk of preventable illness and death. After all, the primary value of doing this work is simple indeed: we do it to save lives.