The toll of COVID-19 has been much greater than the devastating number of deaths directly caused by the disease. Disruption of routine health services impacted efforts to eliminate diseases such as polio, hepatitis, and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) like leprosy and river blindness. Years of community health campaigns have greatly reduced cases and improved lives for millions of people, with many diseases on track for elimination by 2030.
However, COVID-19 restrictions disrupted that work and, in April 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidance to temporarily halt health campaigns. The COVID-19 Campaign Impact Tracker, hosted by our Health Campaign Effectiveness program, reported that more than a third of planned health campaigns were delayed worldwide in 2020, including those for polio and other immunizations, NTDs, and malaria, leaving people at risk of preventable diseases.
Photo caption: Health worker in Guinea-Bissau follows COVID-19 protocols while dispensing treatment for trachoma. Courtesy of Vitor Inhane.
To help countries sustain progress, our teams equipped countries with tools to continue disease elimination activities while adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols. For example, our Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination (CGHE) developed guidance on how national hepatitis programs could safely continue testing and treatment. They also convened 44 countries to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on hepatitis care, highlighting that while the short-term effects have been negative, the pandemic response could strengthen health systems, boosting disease programs like hepatitis in the years to come.
Likewise, our Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy provided guidance on how to continue treatment, prevent greater transmission of leprosy, and reduce the risk of complications from COVID-19, as people affected by leprosy are a high-risk group due to immunosuppression.
As the WHO prepared guidance on resuming community NTD campaigns, our NTD Support Center worked with the WHO and partners on protocols to monitor the safety of resuming health campaigns and improve effectiveness while adhering to guidelines. Meanwhile, our NTD Supply Chain forum convened partners to resolve problems caused by interrupted drug production, shipment, and distribution, seeking to mitigate delays in delivery of treatment to avoid a resurgence of disease.
Many Task Force disease elimination efforts center on Africa which, in fact, had fewer COVID-19 deaths than other large continents in 2020. The BBC cited five reasons why: quick governmental action on public health measures; public support for safety measures; young population; favorable climate; and good community health systems. Indeed, the BBC noted that “the continent’s strength lay in its tried and tested community health systems.” Task Force NTD experts observed first-hand the effect of those systems.
As one example, while polio vaccination campaigns were temporarily paused in Ethiopia, our experts conducted COVID-19 case identification, contact tracing, and quarantine enforcement, and expanded the number of laboratory testing sites.
While researchers assess the long-term impact of disruptions, Task Force teams continue to adapt and respond so communities can control, prevent and eliminate diseases.
A STORY FROM NAURU
Community health workers and organizations adapted to pandemic guidelines in order to continue health campaigns that addressed other devastating diseases. One example of this is the trachoma program in the island-nation of Nauru, the third smallest nation in the world, which conducted its first mass drug administration (MDA) for the elimination of trachoma during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click through the slideshow to learn more.