In the north of Burkina Faso, not far to the east of one of the best-known backpacker destinations in West Africa, the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali, lies the town of Koumbri. It was one of the places where the Burkina Ministry of Health began a mass campaign five years ago to treat parasitic worms. One of the beneficiaries, Aboubacar, then an eight-year-old boy, told health workers he felt perpetually tired and ill and had noticed blood in his urine. After taking a few pills, he felt better, started to play soccer again, and began focusing on his schoolwork and doing better academically.

The Burkina Faso program, which treated more than two million children, was both a success story and an emblem of the tragedy of disease in the developing world. For want of very simple treatments, a billion people in the world wake up every day of their lives feeling sick. As a result they cannot learn in school or work effectively.

Most people in richer countries equate tropical disease with the big three—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria—and funding agencies allocate aid accordingly. Yet a group of conditions known collectively as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) has an even more widespread impact. They may not often kill, but they debilitate by causing severe anemia, malnutrition, delays in intellectual and cognitive development, and blindness. They can lead to horrific limb and genital disfigurement and skin deformities and increase the risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and suffering complications during pregnancy. They not only result from poverty but also help to perpetuate it. Children cannot develop to their full potential, and adult workers are not as productive as they could be.

Such diseases are not confined to developing nations. I estimate that millions of Americans living in poverty also suffer from NTD-like infections. Parasitic diseases such as cysticercosis, Chagas disease, trichomoniasis and toxocariasis occur with high frequency in our inner cities, post-Katrina Louisiana, other parts of the Mississippi Delta, the border region with Mexico, and Appalachia.

NTDs have plagued humankind for thousands of years. Historians have found accurate descriptions of many of them in ancient texts as diverse as the Bible, the Talmud, the Vedas, the writings of Hippocrates, and Egyptian papyri. What is new, however, is that donors, drugmakers, health ministries in low- and middle-income countries, the World Health Organization (WHO), and public-private partnerships are linking their efforts to combat the NTDs in a more coordinated and systematic way. Over the past half a decade the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dubai-based sustainable development fund Legatum, and the U.S. and British governments have committed serious money, while major pharmaceutical companies have donated urgently needed NTD drugs. But the battle has only begun.

Like Leeches in Your Gut
The scale and extent of the global NTD problem are hard to take in. Almost every destitute person living in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America is infected with one or more of these diseases. The illnesses last years, decades and often even a lifetime. The seven most common NTDs have the most devastating impact.

Three of them are caused by parasitic worms, also known as helminths, that live in the intestines. The large common roundworm, which results in ascariasis, afflicts 800 million people and the whipworm, which results in trichuriasis, 600 million people. These helminths rob children of nutrients, stunting their growth. Even worse are hookworms, which are found in 600 million people. These half-inch-long worms attach to the inside of the small intestine and suck blood, like an internal leech. Over a period of months or years they produce severe iron-deficiency anemia and protein malnutrition. Children with chronic hookworm anemia take on a sickly and sallow complexion and have trouble learning in school. More than 40 million pregnant women are also infected with hookworm, rendering them vulnerable to malaria or additional blood losses in childbirth. Their babies are born with low birth weights [see “Hookworm Infection,” by Peter J. Hotez and David I. Pritchard; Scientific American, June 1995].

Schistosomiasis is the next most common NTD. It is caused by parasitic worms known as schistosomes that live in the veins draining the intestines or bladder. More than 90 percent of the 200 million cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa, with another few million cases in Brazil and several other countries. Female schistosomes release eggs equipped with tiny spears that invade and damage organs, including the intestine and liver or the bladder and kidneys, depending on the species. Roughly 100 million school-aged children and young adults pass blood in their urine or feces every day as a result. The inflammation produces pain, malnutrition, growth stunting and anemia. In women, schistosomes deposit eggs in the cervix and vagina, causing disabling pain during sexual intercourse and tripling the risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS [see “Fighting Killer Worms,” by Patrick Skelly; Scientific American, May 2008].

Two other important helminth infections are lymphatic filariasis (LF) and onchocerciasis. The worms that cause LF live in the limbs, breasts and genitals of 120 million people in Asia, Africa and Haiti. They lead to elephantiasis, a grossly disfiguring condition that prevents adults from working and leaves women, in particular, unable to marry or abandoned by their husbands. Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, causes a horribly itchy and disfiguring skin disease as well as blindness in middle-aged adulthood. Almost all of its 30 million to 40 million cases occur in Africa, except for a few locations in the Americas and Yemen.

The seventh important NTD, trachoma, is not caused by a parasitic worm but is a chronic bacterial infection caused by the Chlamydia microorganism. Occurring in 60 million to 80 million people, it is the leading infectious cause of blindness [see “Can Chlamydia Be Stopped?” by David M. Ojcius, Toni Darville and Patrik M. Bavoil; Scientific American, May 2005].

In a series of policy papers, my colleagues and I studied the repercussions of these seven NTDs. Together their global health damage, as measured by the number of healthy life years lost because of disability, is roughly equivalent to that of HIV/AIDS or malaria. Because of their devastating toll on child education and development, pregnancy, and agricultural worker productivity, these NTDs are a major cause of poverty. One case study by Hoyt Bleakley, a development economist, found that chronic hookworm infection in childhood reduced a person’s lifetime earning power by more than 40 percent; K. D. Ramaiah and others in India estimated more than $800 million lost annually from reduced worker productivity as a result of LF. Other studies have found similar effects for onchocerciasis and trachoma.

Curing the Sick with Salt
The good news is that these NTDs can be treated, or even prevented, simply and cheaply. In many cases, a single pill is enough. The available drugs have an excellent safety record, and each is either provided free of charge by multinational companies or available as cheap generics costing less than 10 cents per tablet.

In the early 20th century John D. Rockefeller sponsored mass drug administration to control helminth infection in the American South, and similar efforts began in the Caribbean. During the 1950s and 1960s several tropical medicine specialists started programs for other infections and locations. Among them was Frank Hawking, father of physicist Stephen Hawking, who in 1967 published the results of a study in Brazil in which he treated LF by adding diethylcarbamazine to cooking salt. In 1988 Merck & Co. began one of the first public-private partnerships for the mass treatment of river blindness. Various such partnerships have since been established, and today they reach tens of millions of people annually.

Through the delivery of extremely low cost treatments, these partnerships—in collaboration with WHO, health ministries in low-income countries, and several multinational pharmaceutical companies—have managed to control or eliminate river blindness in 11 African countries, allowing farmers to return to arable lands they had abandoned because of high rates of blindness in their communities. Similarly, treatment programs have eliminated LF in more than a dozen previously endemic countries and reduced the prevalence of schistosomiasis by up to 80 percent in eight African countries. Measured narrowly in financial terms, the internal rates of return for these programs have ranged as high as 30 percent.

One Pill to Cure Them All
Despite these enormous successes, we still have a long way to go to provide complete drug coverage for the billion or more people with NTDs. WHO estimates that treatment programs reach fewer than 10 percent of people suffering from intestinal infections and schistosomiasis.

Better organization and technology are part of the answer. WHO and other organizations have studied the simultaneous administration of many NTD drugs, and they are moving quickly to provide these drugs as a single package (sometimes referred to as a rapid impact package), which can cost as little as 50 cents annually. A number of African countries have already begun to integrate programs that target individual NTDs into a single program. Bundling reduces costs and the strain on otherwise overburdened health systems, as well as providing an opportunity to fold in other interventions, among them the delivery of antimalaria bed nets, childhood immunizations and nutritional supplements such as vitamin A.

Although the integration of NTD-control programs has been largely successful so far, it has also encountered some operational challenges, including an increased workload for community drug distributors and the lack of availability of some of the NTD drugs in certain places. Health workers have had to be vigilant in looking for signs of drug resistance.

Ultimately, these NTD-control programs will need more money. The U.S. and British governments have committed more than $400 million over the next few years to support in­tegrated NTD control, but estimates suggest that controlling NTDs in the 56 endemic countries will require $2 billion to $3 billion for the next five to seven years. To make the case for better funding, some of the major public-private partnerships came together in 2006 to form the Global Network for NTDs, which works closely with WHO and its regional offices. Hosted by the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the network receives support from the Gates foundation and other private donors and works to support treatment programs for NTDs around the world through advocacy, policy and logistical efforts.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute has also established an international product development partnership to produce new vaccines for hookworm infection and schistosomiasis. A hookworm vaccine is now entering clinical trials, which is welcome news because of concerns that one of the drugs now in use for mass treatment is showing high failure rates, a sign that the parasite has become resistant. Sabin works with a spectrum of Brazilian research and development institutes and the Brazilian government. Brazil has the largest number of cases of these helminth infections in the Americas; these NTDs were originally introduced from the endemic areas of West Africa by the slave trade, making them living vestiges of slavery.

If fighting NTDs is so obvious and so cheap, why has it taken so long to act in a systematic way? That is not an easy question to answer. In the Millennium Development Goals for sustainable reduction of poverty, launched in 2000, the NTDs were lumped in an “other diseases” category, and it is hard to get people excited about “other diseases.” Moreover, the NTDs debilitate more than they kill, so that the big donor countries have chosen to focus primarily on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which are fatal unless treated. Other development programs, viewing NTDs as a symptom rather than the disease, have preferred to concentrate on what they see as the underlying problems, such as poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water, and poverty in general. Those are laudable aims, but the empirical reality is that NTD drugs are the single most cost-effective way to improve the health, education and well-being of the world’s poor right now.

Note: This story was originally printed with the title "A Plan to Defeat Neglected Tropical Diseases"