In the year 1014, Byzantine Emperor Basil the Second defeated the Bulgarian army and captured 15,000 prisoners. He could’ve killed them, but he wanted to weaken his opponents for decades to come. So, he ordered that 99 out of every 100 prisoners be blinded. The 100th to be spared one eye to guide the rest back home, forcing their communities to care for them for the rest of their lives.
Today, humans are subject to an attack just as cynical as this by a league of supervillians called NTDs. One in seven humans on the planet suffers from one or more NTDs, more than the entire population of Europe. They do unimaginable damage, by crippling countless people, they destroy billions of dollars in income each year, weaken communities, and slow progress.
WHAT ARE NTDs?
NTDs are caused by a vast range of different parasites such as worms, amoebae, bacteria, or viruses. The symptoms they cause are just as diverse and truly the stuff of nightmares. Some, like hookworms, compete with children’s brains and bodies for nutrition, stunting growth, and impairing intelligence. Some NTDs cause blindness as the result of awful eye infections. Other parasites confine patients to bed for months, and damage internal organs, often shortening lifespans drastically. Yet others cause horrible disfigurements that lead to social stigma, a life lived in shame and unemployment. There are also a few that are incredibly agonizing. They cause continuous itching or horrible pain.
These diseases are contrasted with the big three infectious diseases (HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria), which generally receive greater treatment and research funding. In sub-Saharan Africa, the effect of these diseases as a group is comparable to malaria and tuberculosis.
Twenty neglected tropical diseases are prioritized by the World Health Organization. These diseases are common in 149 countries, costing developing economies billions of dollars every year. Of these 20, two were targeted for eradication (dracunculiasis by 2015 and yaws by 2020), and four for elimination (blinding trachoma, human African trypanosomiasis, leprosy, and lymphatic filariasis) by 2020.
Lets talk about one of them: Dracun culiasis.
If you accidentally drink water infected by it, you won’t notice anything for a year. Until one day, you suddenly see a blister on your leg. The worm breaks out of the skin to release new larvae. The only way to remove it is to slowly pull it out of your leg, centimeter by centimeter, over the course of several weeks.
In 1985, there were 3.5 million cases of Dracun culiasis all over the world. In 2015, there were 22. We killed 99.999% of these little monsters. It will be the first parasite we eradicate for good very soon.
WHAT HAVE WE DONE ABOUT IT?
All NTDs have one thing in common: they attack humans who live in the most isolated communities, and who are least able to defend themselves. There are villages that are 500 kilometers from the nearest health facility, with no roads anywhere. So even if a remedy is available, what if it means going on an odyssey to get it to the patients?
To stamp out NTDs once and for all, what’s possibly the biggest medical program in human history was launched, unmatched in scale. Organizations from all fields are working together right now to eliminate ten of these NTDs forever.
Ironically, every NTD is, in fact, preventable or treatable. But most of them can only be controlled by giving medicine to every person in all high-risk areas. That means millions and millions of doses of medicine, often for several NTDs at a time, over the course of years, in countries where there is no infrastructure.
Here, humanity got an opportunity to show off what the industrialized production of medicine can achieve. The pharma industry stepped in to distribute the necessary drugs for free, and promised to keep doing it until those ten diseases are gone. By 2020, nearly $18 billion worth of drugs will have been distributed, the largest drug donation the world has ever seen. They also helped make sure the drugs actually get to where they’re needed.
In 2015 alone, these treatments reached over 850 million people.
Bad things happening generates headlines. Hundreds of millions of people overcoming extremely destructive diseases, in an unprecedented act of cooperation doesn’t. Stories like this one are not told often enough. Good things happen all the time, moving humanity closer to a future with no suffering. We, as a species, really can do great things with no other motivation than to help each other.