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IDB integrates efforts to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases

Efforts include actions to prevent and control neglected tropical diseases, currently affecting more than 200 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean

Most residents of San Juan Cancuc, a town in Chiapas, the southernmost State of Mexico, don’t speak Spanish: Instead, languages such as Tzotzil and Tzeltal resound in the mountainous area. Illiteracy is 52.37 percent. Most people lack access to potable water and sanitation, and most homes don’t have cement floors.

The residents of San Juan Cancuc and other towns in Chiapas are facing a public health problem. Besides living in isolation and poverty, more than 300,000 people, mostly members of indigenous communities, are at risk of contracting a number of little-known tropical diseases. These ailments, referred to by specialists as the "neglected" tropical diseases, disproportionally affect poor, marginalized groups across Latin America and the Caribbean and reduce their chances of breaking the poverty cycle.

"More than 200 million people in the region are at risk of contracting one or more of these diseases in both rural and urban areas. Even though effective, affordable treatments exist,these diseases have devastating effects on the population. They diminish adults’ work productivity and negatively affect children’s physical and cognitive development," said Ignez Tristao, a social protection specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

This group of diseases includes intestinal parasites, leprosy and rabies, as well as otherssuch astrachoma, Chagas’ disease, onchocerchiasis, schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis.

Incidence of these diseases is particularly high in the rural indigenous communities of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. It is also high in areas with large, predominantly Afro-descendent populations in the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil.

Treatment and prevention

"These diseases cause anemia, organ damage and blindness. They also increase the risk for complications during childbirth and endanger the mother’s health," Tristao added. "In cost-effectiveness terms, the estimated economic return that would be achieved by controlling these diseases is between 15 percent and 30 percent."

However, treatment alone isn’t enough. It must be combined with preventative actions such as community education and control of contagions. The latter requires finding solutions for the lack of access to safe water, sanitation and adequate housing.

"A key objective of the pilot projects we’re supporting is to explore effective ways to combine health, water supply and sanitation interventions with others actions that have proven effective in the public health arena," said Ferdinando Regalia, the Chief of the IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division.

Chiapas, a comprehensive approach

Implemented by the Chiapas State Health Institute with support from the IDB, the Chiapas pilot program integrates coordinated prevention and control activities for all the diseases, which increases its cost-effectiveness and long-term sustainability. "We are integrating activities across sectors not only in the country, but also inside the IDB. This will allow us to change the social and environmental determinants that permit disease transmission," Tristao explained. "In Chiapas, we are financing training for the health professionals who work with the affected communities, as well as comprehensive health campaigns and an epidemiological surveillance system. Internally, we are coordinating with the IDB’s water and sanitation sector to provide these communities with safe water."

Working together

The IDB has joined forces with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the SABIN Vaccine Institute to launch several projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the aim of combating neglected tropical diseases regionally. In 2011, the initiative launched projects in Bolivia, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, and in 2012, it is supporting projects in Brazil, Guyana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico.

In Chiapas, an innovative public-private partnership has been created with FEMSA, a Mexican beverage bottling company with operations throughout the country, to support community mobilization activities in order to raise awareness about disease prevention and treatment.