Peter Hotez talks about the global impact and historical context of neglected tropical diseases. He also highlights important developments in mass drug administration and vaccine research and shares why he chose to publish the third edition of Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ashley's Biggest Takeaways
Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) are chronic and debilitating conditions that disproportionately impact people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
Many of these diseases are parasitic, such as hookworm infection, schistosomiasis and chagas disease; however, in recent years, several non-parasitic infections caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses, as well as a few conditions that are not infections, including snake bite and scabies (an ectoparasitic infestation), have been added to the original NTD framework (established in the early 2000s).
What do most NTDs have in common?
- High prevalence.
- Low mortality; high morbidity.
- Interfere with people's ability to work productively.
- Impact child development and/or the health of girls and women.
- Occur in a setting of poverty and actually cause poverty because of chronic and debilitating effects.
Hotez and his colleagues recognized that there is a uniqueness to the NTDs ecosystem, and they began putting together a package of medicines that could be given on a yearly or twice per year basis, using a strategy called Mass Drug Administration (MDA). This involved the identification of medicines that were being used on an annual basis in vertical control programs and combining those medications in a package of interventions that costs about $0.50 per person per year. "Throw in an extra 50 cents per person and we could double or triple the impact of public health interventions," he explained.
Emerging diseases, such as SARS-CoV-2, capture the attention of the public for obvious reasons. They pose an imminent threat to mankind. NTDs are not emerging infections, but they are ancient afflictions that have plagued humankind for centuries and, as a consequence, have had a huge impact on ancient and modern history. One of the reasons we have mainland China and Taiwan today may have been, in part, due to a parasitic infection, Schistosomiasis.
Hotez and colleagues at the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development have developed a COVID-19 vaccine, based on simple technology, similar to what is used for the Hepatitis B vaccine. They hope to release the vaccine for emergency use in resource poor countries like India and Indonesia.
When asked about the timing of the publication of his book, the third edition of Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases, Hotez acknowledged the difficulty of helping countries understand that NTDs have not gone away. COVID-19 is superimposed on top of them, and the pandemic has done a lot of damage in terms of NTD control. Although social disruption has interfered with the ability to deliver mass treatments, Hotez said that it has been gratifying to see that the USAID and their contractors have responded by putting out guidelines about how to deliver mass treatments with safe social distancing.
"As a global society, we have to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time," he said. "We've got to take care of COVID, but we really must not lose the momentum we've had for NTDs because the prevalence is starting to decline and we're really starting to make an impact."