By Priscilla Pangan, Youth Ambassador for the Canadian Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases

From June 3rd to 6th, over 8,000 delegates went to Vancouver to rally around gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of women and girls at the 2019 Women Deliver conference. I had the incredible privilege of being one among them, joining the Canadian Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (CNNTD) as their Youth Ambassador. Together with Network partners effect:hope and the UK-based coalition Uniting to Combat NTDs, we brought the untold stories of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) to the spotlight.

If you don’t already know, NTDs are a set of diseases – twenty, by the World Health Organization’s count – that collectively affect over a billion people, but have historically received little attention. Aside from bring hard to pronounce (lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, just to list a few), what ties these diseases together is where they take hold: in the world’s most vulnerable communities. NTDs occur primarily in countries with high levels of poverty and poor access to health care and sanitation facilities. But despite what the name suggests, some NTDs are even found in the United States and in Canada.  The impact of NTDs is felt worldwide and needs a concerted global effort to address.

Priscilla with Dr. Mwele Malecela, Director of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the World Health Organization.

That’s why it was so important to put NTDs on the agenda at a platform like Women Deliver. If you have caught a glimpse of the program, you will know it spans gender-based violence, girls’ education, women in politics, economic empowerment, climate change, sexual and reproductive health and rights – and all have a stake in the #beatNTDs movement.

One message that kept coming to mind was the tagline that Uniting to Combat NTDs shared across its Great Pub Quiz and lunch panel discussion: “NTDs: The missing link”. From female-specific diseases such as female genital schistosomiasis, to the stigma and suffering that comes with living with an NTD and the resulting loss of employability, marriage, or community engagement – women and girls around the world feel the burden of NTDs throughout their entire lifetimes. At Women Deliver, I saw upfront how NTDs are relevant to the trends, opportunities, and challenges shaping the world we live in today.

NTDs are a girls’ education issue. “If we’re to push for quality education that ensures no girl is left behind, her health must be a part of the conversation,” noted one of the panellists in a session on the right to education. School-age children typically have the highest rates of worm infection of any age group, negatively impacting their health and their learning. Consequently, school can be the setting for life-changing drug administration programs, including essential deworming treatment. Healthier children, in turn, mean fuller classrooms – and the more kids go to school, the better the chances that they will succeed.

Climate change will multiply health disparities. The NTD linkage? Higher temperatures and rising water levels may lengthen breeding seasons of insects and worms transmitting NTDs, with unpredictable effects. In their traditional roles as food producers and water collectors, women interact uniquely with the environment, putting them at the highest risk for soil- and water-borne NTDs. In the words of one water activist from Cambodia, “Empowerment of women and girls is its own climate change solution.” Securing women’s health is key to empowering women, whose knowledge is crucial to safeguarding the environment.

Malnutrition, poor learning, and limited ability to farm or earn for a living trap whole communities in cycles of poverty. NTDs are a youth rights issue. In preventing young people from realizing their full potential, NTDs are a matter of intergenerational justice and equity. In the last ten years, there have been great strides towards the control of NTDs. Continued investments and action will shape the world our generation will inherit. The presence of 1,500 youth delegates at Women Deliver sent a resounding message: young people are rising up. We will have a say in our health, we will hold our leaders to account, and we will drive change.

Achieving gender equality will required an integrated response – the kinds of interventions that define ongoing efforts around NTDs. Panellists at Uniting to Combat NTDs’ lunchtime panel session highlighted unprecedented donations from pharmaceutical companies that resulted in 1 billion treatments in 2017. They shared stories about how women have been leading the charge in getting these donations to the communities that need them, as community drug distributors. Women Deliver highlighted the power of partnership and community, and NTD interventions embody exactly that.

Four days of panels, speaking with delegates at Uniting to Combat NTDs’ bustling exhibition booth, and the occasional dance party left me simultaneously exhausted and energized (if that’s even possible), charged with new ideas and inspiration.  Between our government’s ground-breaking funding announcements and the Members of Parliament who voiced their support for the control and elimination of NTDs, there was a lot of cause for celebration at Women Deliver. Still, we have a long way to go. A month on from conference, words from Ethiopian president Sahle-Work Zewde stick with me: “We must not let our commitments stay in the conference room.” We must continue to put a face to NTDs, to call for action, and to invest in the important work already being done. For us working in the development and global health space, we must continue to find “the missing links” and address them. It’s time that neglected tropical diseases aren’t neglected any longer.

About the author:  Priscilla Pangan is a Project Officer with the Canadian Society for International Health.  She is passionate about global health, development and gender equality and she is particularly interested in social determinants of health.