Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) had the honour of being invited to the 76th WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia (SEARO) in New Delhi, India (30 October – 2 November 2023).
It was brilliant to see NTDs featured so prominently on the agenda. Since 2014, eliminating NTDs has been a flagship initiative of the WHO SEARO region, under the leadership of Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh.
Here are some highlights:
Day 1 – NTD elimination highlights over the past decade
Before the meeting had even kicked off, attendees could explore an exhibition celebrating a decade of disease elimination milestones including many NTDs, as well as the following inspiring quote from Dr Singh:
“By eliminating NTDs, member countries are giving their people a future free from debilitating and stigmatising diseases, and truly leaving no one behind.”
Both Dr Singh and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, highlighted NTD eliminations as a demonstration of progress in the region within their opening speeches, as seven out of ten member states in the WHO SEARO region have been validated for eliminating at least one NTD since 2014.
Day 2 – a world-first as Bangladesh eliminates kala-azar
On Day two, we were delighted to see NTD elimination successes front and centre as WHO presented countries with awards recognising recent disease elimination validations.
One of these validations was a world-first, as Bangladesh became the first country globally to be validated by WHO for eliminating visceral leishmaniasis (VL, also known as kala-azar) as a public health problem.
VL is a disease of poverty, transmitted by the bite of a female sandfly and, if left untreated, is almost always fatal. Poverty, poor housing conditions, malnutrition and lack of sanitation are all major risk factors for the disease. Eliminating VL requires a multifaceted, strategic approach addressing these root causes so congratulations to Bangladesh on this remarkable success, offering a beacon of hope that the suffering caused by VL and other NTDs can be ended once and for all.
Uniting to Combat NTDs were also delighted to recognise this achievement by congratulating the Minister of Health and Family Welfare for Bangladesh, Zahid Maleque, with a ‘world-first’ award.
This success also means that Bangladesh is the first country to eliminate two NTDs in one year, as they were formally presented with a second award for the elimination of lymphatic filariasis, achieved in May this year.
It was brilliant to see Maldives celebrated for becoming the first country to verify interruption of transmission of leprosy at the meeting. The WHO assessment team highlighted high political will and community motivation as key to the success.
Day 3 – a new era and new framing for NTDs
Day three saw the election of a new Regional Director who takes over from Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh whose term is coming to an end. Uniting to Combat NTDs would like to thank Dr Singh for her continued championing of NTDs over the years.
We would also like to congratulate and welcome the incoming Regional Director for WHO SEARO Saima Wazed into the position, and we look forward to working with her as she guides the region towards more NTD elimination successes in the future.
The afternoon brought a session looking at the Regional Strategic Framework for sustaining, accelerating and innovating to end NTDs in the South-East Asia Region 2023–2030.
Developed by the WHO regional office with consultations with member states and partners, the Framework is intended to guide and coordinate efforts to implement the WHO road map in the region.
Uniting to Combat NTDs responded to the Framework by:
- Thanking the Regional Director Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh for her leadership and prioritisation of NTD elimination as one of the eight priority programmes of the WHO South-East Asia Region since 2014.
- Celebrating the seven countries that have already eliminated at least one NTD making the South-East Asia region a leader in NTD elimination.
- Congratulating Bangladesh, Maldives and DPR Korea that were celebrated at the regional committee meeting for their extraordinary public health successes, two of which are in the fight against NTDs.
- Calling on the incoming Regional Director to continue with the regional flagship initiatives and re-commit to NTD elimination throughout South-East Asia.
Finally, we thanked Timor Leste and the other 20 countries around the world who have endorsed the Kigali Declaration on NTDs and urged the rest of SEARO member states to endorse the declaration. The Kigali Declaration is a high-level, political declaration that mobilises political will, community commitment, resources and action, and secures commitments needed to end the suffering caused by NTDs.
We were delighted to hear from countries making great strides towards elimination and control of NTDs, including requests for starting the official validation process for the eradication of schistosomiasis in Indonesia and soil transmitted helminths in the Maldives, as well as positive steps towards elimination of visceral leishmaniasis and lymphatic filariasis in India, yaws and lymphatic filariasis in Timor Leste, and rabies control in Sri Lanka.
“India no longer treats tropical diseases as neglected tropical diseases. India calls them PRIORITISED tropical diseases."
We love India’s attitude and hope to be celebrating good news on NTD eliminations in the future coming from this prioritisation.
As part of the session, the Chair also recognised the importance of tackling NTDs to the Sustainable Development Goals:
"Efforts to control and eliminate NTDs also drive the wider provisions of clean WASH; the availability of resilient infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; climate action; and strong global partnerships."
Thank you to WHO SEARO for demonstrating that the region is #100PercentCommitted to beating NTDs.