What the poor suffer from most happens in developed countries

Bangkok Thailand Credit Dario Lo Presti Shutterstock CNA Dario Lo Presti via Shutterstock.

While rarely talked about, Neglected Tropical Diseases are the most widespread ailment among the world's poorest of the poor – yet also ironically the most prevalent in top global economies, experts say.

Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) are "the most important diseases you've never heard of. These are the most common afflictions of the world's poor," Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, told CNA Nov. 11.

"Every single person who lives in poverty, profound poverty, has at least one of these diseases," he said, noting that since they typically don't lead to death, they are "neglected but they're not rare," with many people suffering not just from "a single disease, they have multiple diseases at the same time."

Hotez is President of Sabin Vaccine Institute and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. He also serves as the U.S. Science Envoy.

Founded in 1993, the institute is a nonprofit that focuses on medical research, advocacy and education to reduce the impact of vaccine-preventable and neglected tropical diseases. Scientists, researchers and advocates are all part of the team seeking to end needless suffering through these ailments.

Joined by hundreds of others, Hotez was in Rome for a Nov. 10-12 conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers titled "For a culture of welcoming and supportive health at the service of people with rare and neglected diseases."

The conference was held in two different sessions, one focusing on rare diseases, while the other, at which Hotez was a keynote speaker, focused on NTDs, which infect over 1 billion of the world's across the globe.

Specifically addressed were the 18 most prominent NTDs, including Ascariasis, Hookworm Disease, Schistosomiasis, Dengue, Chagas disease, Onchocerciasis, Rabies and Hansen's Disease (leprosy).  

In his comments to CNA, Hotez noted that when the Sabin Institute was founded the primary focus was in poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and poverty-stricken countries in Latin America, the problem has shifted.

"One of our new findings is that it's the poor living among the wealthy that paradoxically account for most of the world's neglected tropical diseases," he said.

"If you look on the total numbers basis, it's the G20 countries, the 20 largest economies together with Nigeria...that now account for the world's neglected tropical diseases," he said, stressing that the diseases are spread among the poor, so "it's the concentration of intense poverty."

NTDs "reinforce poverty" in that they often consist of debilitating conditions that make people too sick to work, disproportionately affect women and children and in some cases "actually shave IQ off of kids to ruin their future wage-earning potential."

Pointing to Brazil as an example, Hotez noted that although Brazil is the largest economy in Latin America, the northeast is plagued by intense poverty, and therefore disease.

"That's where you have Zika, and Zika arose out of there not by coincidence but because of poverty," he said.

Hotez said recent data also shows that Catholic countries "are disproportionately suffering from these diseases," and stressed the need for the Church to be involved as part of the solution.

Pope Francis has made his "intense drive to do something about poverty" known, he said, adding that if we want to take on poverty, "the most cost-efficient way to do it is to take on the poverty-promoting disease."

He voiced his hope that the Church would take action in addressing the problem of NTDs, advocating to G20 leaders to promote medical treatments that already exist and to push for further research and development to come up with vaccines.

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One strong sign of the Church's commitment to the fight against NTDs was the presence of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the conference, who "seems very committed to this," Hortez said.

Increased collaboration with Cardinal Peter Turkson and his new dicastery for Integral Human Development is also part of the plan, he said, explaining that Sabin Institute will likely be providing "the background information and being a conduit for that dicastery to make it actually happen."

"The action that I would like to see is engagement by the Church of the G20 leaders. And if anybody can do it, it's this Pope."

Pope Francis spoke to conference participants on the last day of the gathering, telling them that each person, "above all a person who suffers, because of a 'rare' or 'neglected' disease as well, without any hesitation deserves every kind of commitment in order to be welcomed, treated and, if possible, healed."

He praised the efforts of doctors and researchers in looking for solutions and further cures, and stressed the need to care for the environment in order to better care for the poor.

"The relationship between these diseases and the environment is decisive," he said, noting that while many of the diseases have a genetic cause, for others "environmental factors have a major importance."

"Even when the causes are genetic, a polluted environment acts as a multiplier of damage. And the greatest burden falls on the poorest populations," he said, stressing the need to have greater respect for "our common home."

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He also spoke of the need for justice in the sense that while care for those suffering from rare or neglected diseases typically centers around an impersonal, doctor-patient relationships, "it is equally true that the approach, at a social level, to this health-care phenomenon requires a clear application of justice, in the sense of 'giving to each his or her due.'"

This basically means "equal access to effective care for equal health needs, independently of factors connected with socio-economic, geographical or cultural contexts," he added, and assured of his prayer and blessing for all those suffering from disease, as well as those present and their work.