Building

a collective force

The word collective is both an adjective (done by people acting as a group) and a noun (a cooperative enterprise). Both speak to a core principle of The Task Force: joining forces with partners to have large-scale impact. 

Tremendous global progress against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) in recent decades illustrates the effectiveness of collective approaches, and in FY 23 we marked several milestones in long-standing programs involving private sector companies that donate medical treatments which The Task Force stewards to communities who need them. 

In 2023, the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP), a partnership involving Merck & Co., Inc. and GSK, approved 376 million Mectizan treatments for community distribution to eliminate onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (LF) in 34 countries and territories around the world. As of 2023, MDP shipped 13 billion Mectizan tablets, working with partners in 58 countries. Four countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico) have eliminated river blindness, three countries (Malawi, Togo and Yemen) have eliminated LF and others are making significant progress toward eliminating these diseases.

By 2023, efforts to prevent and treat the blinding disease of trachoma had resulted in 18 countries having eliminated trachoma as a public health problem and reducing the number of people at risk of trachoma by 92 percent (since 2002). The Task Force’s International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), which stewards Pfizer’s donation of azithromycin to treat and prevent trachoma and partners with government, NGOs, nonprofits and the private sector to accelerate progress, has shipped over a billion doses of antibiotic to 40 countries where more than 300 million people have been treated since the beginning of the program.

Another partnership involves the donation of deworming treatments by Johnson & Johnson and GSK to control soil-transmitted helminth (intestinal worms) infections. In 2023, 365 million doses  were donated through this partnership. To maximize the benefit of this donation program, the Task Force’s Children Without Worms program provides technical assistance to country partners to develop capacity and use epidemiological evidence to guide programming. 

A Task Force Neglected Tropical Disease program focused on operational research (the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center) embarked on a new private-sector partnership to develop commercial serosurveillance kits, facilitating availability of such kits for integrated serosurveillance especially for programmatic use. With financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the partnership with the company Tetracore aims to develop kits to test for multiple infectious diseases, including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), HIV and others. 

A cross-sector initiative known as the MedSurplus Alliance provides a way for healthcare and life sciences industry organizations to donate quality medical products rather than dispose of them, reaching people in 49 countries in fiscal year 2023. One of the partnerships, Kits4Life, involves more than a dozen companies who donated 68,982 supplies, medical devices, and equipment, impacting over 1.5 million people in 25 countries. MSA’s standards and accreditations ensure that Medical Surplus Recovery Organization donation processes meet recognized standards, promote accountability, and improve global health outcomes.

In FETP, It’s All About People

When Philip Kutjok was 12, he remembers witnessing a family friend going blind in his hometown in South Sudan. At that time, he did not know the cause. 

 

Years later, when Philip was a Humphrey Fellow at Emory University, he was introduced to the world of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) while working at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The Task Force for Global Health. Prior to the Humphrey Fellowship, Kutjok had strengthened medical laboratory capacity to help combat outbreaks of such dangerous infectious diseases such as Ebola, yellow fever, and COVID-19  in South Sudan.

 

From Kutjok’s work with NTDs at CDC and The Task Force, he learned about Onchocerciasis (oncho, or commonly known as river blindness). And suddenly, he wondered if his family friend might have had oncho.

 

Oncho is a neglected tropical disease (NTD) that, according to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study, has caused vision loss for an estimated 1.15 million people – nearly all of them in Africa.

 

Next-Gen Tool Supporting Communities to Eliminate Oncho

 

In June 2023, Kutjok joined a group of 15 scientists from Africa and representatives from the U.S. CDC for a training session at Smith’s campus in Northampton, Massachusetts, to help scientists become even more proficient in using a new river blindness diagnostic tool to help communities eliminate oncho. Fifteen scientists from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi and Mali attended the training, which was led by Gates Professor of Biological Sciences Steven Williams, who had personally helped to develop the new protocol. 

 

The new tool and protocol for testing was developed at Smith College and University Hospital Bonn, funded through the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases at The Task Force for Global Health with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

 

Small flies known as black flies spread oncho to humans through bites. To find out if the disease is present in a community, health workers catch flies, remove their heads and test the heads for DNA which indicates the presence of the parasite. The June training sessions kicked off with a demonstration of how to correctly do the test.

 

“The other trainees brought a very high-level of skill to the sessions,” Kutjok said. “One of the scientists from Tanzania gave us all tips on how to separate the head from the body. I’d never done that before.” 

To Stop MDA or Not To Stop MDA?

The new tool and protocol for testing for oncho promises more accurate and cost-effective testing for the disease. When widely deployed, the improved test will help scientists and health workers to better target critical treatments, while allowing resource-constrained health systems to spend more efficiently.

Kutjok said the test’s improved precision offers profound benefits for people and communities impacted by oncho. 

“Better testing allows you to concentrate your efforts where they’re needed,” he said. “When you eliminate oncho from a community, you’re eliminating one of the barriers that prevents people from thriving. You’re making it easier for people to work and for children to go to school.”  

“There are countries that are in different stages when it comes to oncho elimination and control. There are people who have already started the treatment with mass drug administration (MDA)  and they want a tool to help them address the question as to when to stop administering vaccinations. The MDA can go on for a long time. Maybe 12 years. 15 years maximum. They don’t know when to stop the MDA. It is very expensive to keep going without stopping.”

 

Recently, Philip had a chance encounter with a relative of the family friend who he witnessed going blind many years ago and confirmed that the family friend went blind because of oncho. To this day, Philip provides medical laboratory support for oncho and other NTDs so that communities like his own in South Sudan no longer have to go blind because of oncho.

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