In the shantytown of Alto do Carroceiro in Recife, Brazil’s fifth largest city, 10-year old Emily Eduarda Belo de Oliveira dreams of one day becoming a teacher, even as she helps her mom take care of four other siblings in their one-bedroom, windowless home. And being poor is not Emily’s only hurdle: she also has leprosy, a disease that, if left untreated, can cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Emily is one of the 100 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean affected by a group of neglected tropical diseases that includes leprosy, elephantiasis, blinding trachoma, and intestinal parasites. This diverse group of infections thrives in conditions of poverty, poor sanitation, unsafe water, and malnutrition.
The diseases carry a social stigma and rob years of productive life. One of the biggest challenges in overcoming them is to identify them early enough so treatment can begin before their debilitating impact. Diagnosis in public health systems often comes too late because providers are not trained to detect these diseases and their symptoms.
As a result, in 2010, the IDB joined forces with the Pan American Health Organization and the SABIN Vaccine Institute to launch several demonstration projects in Latin America and the Caribbean to test ways to combat neglected tropical diseases on a regional level. These projects support educational campaigns, community mobilization, and integrated health interventions to identify and treat the diseases. Demonstration projects are currently taking place in Recife, Georgetown, Guyana, Chiapas, Mexico, and in Guatemala and Haiti.
In Brazil, where 34,000 new cases of leprosy were detected in 2011–the second highest rate of new infections in the world after India–the project supported an education campaign in public schools in impoverished areas of Recife to increase self-reporting and diagnoses of leprosy, elephantiasis, soil-transmitted helminthiasis, and schistosomiasis.
That was how Emily found out she had the disease. After health educators made a presentation in her school, she realized that a lesion in her leg could be an early sign of leprosy. She filled out a sheet where she carefully described her lesion. Such self-detection forms have made the screening process for potential cases easier for health agents, and in Emily’s case it led to her getting tested for the disease and starting treatment. The methodology has been so successful that the leprosy self-detection form is now being used nationwide.
Educational campaigns and community mobilization activities have directly benefited more than 17,000 students from 6 to 14 years old in three municipalities of Recife, and have indirectly benefited some 70,000 others. Students in 42 public schools are receiving medications to reduce the prevalence of intestinal parasites.
With integrated health actions such as that being carried out in Recife, controlling and eliminating neglected tropical diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean is achievable. That means more children like Emily will be able to detect and treat these types of diseases early and go on to have normal and productive lives.
Key Facts about Neglected Tropical Diseases
- Over a billion of the world‘s poorest people are affected by such diseases
- The effects of the diseases are measured in terms of healthy years of life lost as a result of either disability or premature death
- More people are at risk of neglected tropical diseases than tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV combined
- Treating most of these diseases is safe, inexpensive, and easy. Many of the medicines needed to treat them are donated by pharmaceutical companies.