The below is an open letter to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, regarding the UK Government’s decision to cut funding for interventions for neglected tropical diseases.
Dear Prime Minister,
The UK Government has unilaterally withdrawn over £150 million to programmes that protect the most vulnerable people from debilitating, disabling, and killing diseases called neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), and to research and development in NTDs. Many of these diseases are close to being eliminated, in part thanks to the contributions of the UK.
These cuts will leave more than 200 million people vulnerable to these devastating diseases at a time when we are also fighting a global health pandemic. The achievements from investments made should have meant this was a proud moment in our history. Instead, it will look like we dropped the ball at the crucial time.
For the financial year April 2021 to March 2022 the UK Government previously committed to support some of the most underserved and impoverished communities in 24 countries by delivering 251 million treatments, leveraging over 770 million donated medicines (worth roughly US$ 1.2 billion), supporting 180,000 disability-preventing surgeries, and strengthening health systems.
These promises won’t be delivered.
Can you imagine a pain so excruciating you can’t open your eyes? Your child’s belly so full with worms they can’t absorb nutrients? Your legs swelling so severely you can’t walk? These are just some of the symptoms caused by NTDs. Diseases like blinding trachoma, intestinal worms, and elephantiasis. These diseases are preventable and treatable, yet they still affect 1.7 billion people around the world, 1.1 billion of them in the Commonwealth, and they disproportionately affect women and children. Investments in NTDs have been a development success story with 43 countries having eliminated at least one NTD, including 14 in the Commonwealth, and 600 million people no longer requiring treatment for them.
Absolutely, we must find efficiency savings due to the economic impact of COVID-19. But should a programme that leverages £26 worth of donated drugs – from companies like GSK – for every £1 invested, and is only 1 percent of the total aid budget, be eliminated entirely? Cutting it means several hundred million of children will not get access to life changing treatment; this incredible return on investment will be lost; and efforts to strengthen health systems – enabling better pandemic preparedness – are undermined.
Progress will be halted if this funding is cut. Additionally, millions of treatments that are already waiting to be distributed could be wasted if cuts prevent them from being distributed. Other donors, including pharmaceutical companies, who continue to make significant investments into these programmes, will be relying on the UK government to honor its commitment to fight and end these diseases, together. How can this be the right choice?
It is estimated that one billion young people are affected by NTDs. If funding is halted, progress on poverty reduction and girls’ education will be set back, which was declared a key government priority. Young people affected by NTDs are less likely to attend school and will have lower earning potential as adults. Why would we risk the future of one billion people for so little?
What happened to the idea of ‘global Britain’? The UK pledged to provide 236 million treatments leveraging over one billion pounds worth of donated medicines. This life-changing partnership is now at risk with the UK pulling out its funding.
In June, the UK will host the G7 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government are coming together to recommit to tackling NTDs. Rather than the UK taking the lead at this time and fulfilling its promises, it is countries like France (aid increase by 11%) and Germany (increase of 13.7%) who are increasing aid budgets. By contrast we are walking away, damaging our credibility irreparably.
These aid cuts risk children’s lives. They will impede efforts to reduce poverty and improve access to education. They will undermine our reputation and diplomacy leverage. But tackling NTDs is not only the right and ethical thing to do, it is also in our self-interest. COVID has shown how critically important it is to strengthen health systems to improve pandemic preparedness and prevention. In 2020, NTD programmes helped with COVID control and they can now help with vaccine rollout around the world. COVID has shown us that the world is highly connected and disease control must be dealt with globally.
Prime Minister: in a year when the UK has a chance to show leadership and vital investments are needed to keep everyone safe from health pandemics, we urge you to maintain at least 50% of this year’s budget to NTDs and commit to previous funding levels in 2022. We should not walk away at a time when we are seeing the benefits of the investments made by UK taxpayers, with so many countries being able to demonstrate elimination. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up.
Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi)
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
SDGs Promise Japan
The End Fund
Read more about how we are working to reverse the UK Government’s decision here.