NTDs: countries must adapt and innovate to mitigate COVID-19 disruptions

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As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, interruptions and delays are impacting the delivery of services to populations requiring treatment and care for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The longer the disruptions, the higher the chances of NTDs spreading in high-transmission areas – with a risk of undoing decades of progress earned through rigorous scale-up of programmes.

Out of 109 countries that responded to the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) last “pulse survey”, 44% reported disruptions. Rates were slightly lower among countries in WHO’s Western Pacific Region, where NTD activities continued to be delivered through integrated services for non-communicable diseases, and in WHO’s European Region, where NTDs are not widespread.

The area most severely affected was large-scale treatment programmes, with 60% of countries reporting disruptions. This included activities related to community awareness, information and health campaigns, psycho-social rehabilitation, surgical procedures, and healthcare services for patients suffering from chronic NTDs.

Furthermore, at least three quarters of the countries surveyed had redirected NTD staff to COVID-19 activities. This included 10% of countries confirming that all NTD staff were repurposed to support work related to the pandemic.

WHO continues to provide guidance and assistance to countries and implementing partners on the resumption and implementation of interventions. It is also considering how to deal with NTDs that overlap with the case definition of COVID-19, and how to treat people affected by NTDs who also show signs or symptoms of COVID-19.

WHO has reiterated that it does not recommend the use of ivermectin (a broad-spectrum parasitic medicine) for COVID-19, except for clinical trials. The pandemic has taught us that we must remain vigilant, not only against COVID-19 but also against future threats.

These points were discussed during a WHO webinar on NTDs and COVID-19 on 15 October 2021.

The webinar also covered how Sightsavers adapted WHO’s interim guidance on NTDs and COVID-19 into an Excel-based tool on risk assessment, to help implementing partners mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and restart treatment.

WHO/ From left to right: Déirdre Hollingsworth, Maria Van Kerkhove and Chelsea Maria Taylor.

Other topics discussed included rabies control and prevention programmes, which are slowly restarting in some parts of the world; how patients suffering from Chagas disease have benefited from advice and treatment; compassion and suffering resulting from the pandemic; and ways to address burn out.

The recently announced malaria vaccine is great news and a huge asset in the arsenal of tools to defeat this widely prevalent disease. But we heard that the vaccine itself is not a “magic bullet” and should be used in conjunction with current measures. During the height of the pandemic, WHO’s Global Malaria Programme worked very hard to convince countries to continue implementing control and prevention programmes. They continue to work with all partners and countries to support the implementation of additional measures, should the need arise.

The webinar also explored how the pandemic has affected WHO’s Region of the Americas. Like elsewhere, NTD programmes were deprioritized in many countries, resulting in massive disruptions in treatment and care. The positive side is that adaptation and innovation can help countries resume their NTD activities, complemented by integrated interventions and collaboration. This is exemplified by the measures taken by Guyana – a country that was able to continue implementation against all odds.

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