By Noah Louis-Ferdinand, Task Force Intern
As a young person who advocates for health in the U.S., I have always found my efforts to be an uphill battle. I remember distinctly when I was looking to publish some work on behavior change at age 20, my much senior mentor said bluntly: “I mean you can write it, but no one will read it.”
This sense of impenetrability is one of the many frustrations I have faced as a young health advocate. Public health can often seem institutionalized and hard to maneuver for those without wealth, power, and privilege. However, after a reported 4.6 million COVID-19 deaths, it is clear we need more people advocating in their local communities.
In my recent internship with The Task Force for Global Health, one thing that has kept me upbeat is meeting youth advocates from around the world like Tanzanian and Zimbabwean youths Yonah Yangaza, Tumaini Makole, Maximillian Godwin, and Sidney Muchemwa who advocate for the control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in their communities. Working with neglected diseases, they often face much larger and more systemic challenges yet still remain optimistic.
The Task Force has a long history of working on NTDs, particularly six NTDs. Our Mectizan® Donation Program delivers treatments for the elimination of onchocerciasis, a skin and eye infection, and lymphatic filariasis, which causes limbs to swell; the International Trachoma Initiative delivers treatments for the elimination of trachoma, an eye disease that can lead to blindness; the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy conducts country reviews in collaboration with the WHO and ministries of health to strengthen national leprosy programs in countries like Tanzania; the NTD Support Center facilitates operational research to eliminate NTDs; Children Without Worms program reduces the burden of intestinal works through operational research, strengthening partnerships, and technical leadership; and the Health Campaign Effectiveness Coalition seeks to find ways to integrate NTD campaigns for greater effectiveness and efficiency.
Public health leaders like Yangaza and Muchemwa are essential to strengthening The Task Force’s NTD work. I saw this first-hand as I worked on social media initiatives and saw the clever ways that such advocates used social media, the communication tool of the youth, to build awareness of the blight of NTDs.
NTDs are diseases of neglect and the same is true even on social media. The news outlet Devex recently highlighted this, citing a tweet from The Task Force that noted “searching ‘neglected tropical diseases’ often yields fewer than 5 posts a day on Twitter. This is despite the fact that more than 1 billion people are affected by these diseases.”
That doesn’t mean there are no advocates. There are many, each working on their own public health projects, who are quite vocal. In the past few months, we have had the pleasure of convening a small group of these individuals to help raise awareness about NTDs. Here are some of their stories as they advocate to #BeatNTDs and accelerate progress towards universal health coverage in a time of crisis.
One of the aspiring youth leaders in the Tanzanian public health community is Yonah Yangaza, a medical laboratory scientist and graduate of the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) in Dar es Salaam. Yonah devotes his free time to NTD surveillance, education, and raising awareness on social media. His efforts are largely voluntary: “I promised myself to be an ambassador for NTDs at no cost.”
One of the ways he acts as ambassador is by educating local school children on the causes of NTDs. Given the long-term effects of these diseases on kids, and his own research finding transmission in the area, helping them understand public health measures is crucial. Yet it is a neglected task: “Right now I’m struggling…Most of the funding for transport, meals, and some gifts for student motivation is all up to me.”
This hasn’t stopped him. What I find most inspiring about Yonah is his persistence and optimism. NTDs affect over 1.7 billion people and emerge from deep historical inequities. Tanzania is also subject to vaccine inequity, with roughly 0.3% of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Yet Yonah chooses action over despair:
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Tumaini and Maximillian
Another one of our close contacts from Tanzania has been Tumaini Makole, a government pharmacist in Dar es Salaam and a respected health advocate. Tumaini first became interested in NTDs during the launch of Youths Combating Neglected Tropical Diseases in February of 2020, hosted by Thoko Pooley. This event inspired him to start engaging in his own advocacy, with big plans for the future. Right now he’s working on a national youth platform to coordinate efforts.
When I remarked that this must be a difficult time to get involved, given that The Task Force’s work to distribute NTD treatments and conduct operational research in Tanzania has encountered delays due to COVID-19, Tumaini stressed the continued importance of outreach: “If you travel to rural areas, you simply see the real situation and it is very disturbing…Even during the pandemic, NTDs were still the top priority in our community.”
He is not alone in feeling this way. One of the many young people he works with is Maximillian Godwin, a pharmaceutical technician and youth combatting NTDs champion from Mtwara, Tanzania. Maximilian heads up the Southern Africa Development Committee (SADC) Youth Forum Task Force on NTDs and is a member of the SADC Youth Forum Health Committee. He recently appeared with Tumaini to educate on #ElimikaWikiendi, a media platform for Swahili speakers that can reach millions on any given weekend. Contrast this with the low number of posts even mentioning NTDs and you already see what these young men are accomplishing.
I have also been impressed with Maximillian’s ability to organize. Last month, during the 3rd SADC Youth Forum, he led the health cluster session in discussion on setting a sustainable course to fight NTDs in SADC countries. Dr. Mwele Malecela, the WHO Director for NTDs, opened the session which reached advocates in 16 African countries.
Here, Maximillian is pictured presenting to Tanzania’s Health Minister to seal a partnership with the Tanzanian Pharmaceutical Students’ Association. The partnership supports efforts like a capacity building workshop on NTD advocacy which Maximillian led for over 200 Tanzanian pharmaceutical students.
This fervent commitment to creating connections between groups mirrors The Task Force’s central philosophy: that partnerships are the basis for global health.
One more promising public health advocate is Sidney Muchemwa. Sidney is an aspiring occupational therapist from Zimbabwe and a student ambassador for The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (RSTHM). He also works to create social media content that informs and encourages Zimbabweans to make the right decisions for their health.
Sidney’s interest in NTDs first emerged as he was applying to the RSTMH: “I found myself reading a lot about tropical medicine during breakfast.
One condition at a time I began to appreciate the pain, trauma and stigma people living with NTDs endure.”
His desire to help those less privileged led him to get involved in the long recovery from Cyclone Idai, one of the worst cyclones to ever hit Africa. As part of a student initiative out of the University of Zimbabwe, he focused on expanding access to WASH services, a recent focus of FACE, and designing and building low cost sanitation facilities. Of course, it is impossible to prevent NTDs without proper hygiene.
Sidney’s life-saving volunteer work is impressive considering he only just started his medical training in Harare. He’ll complete his undergraduate degree in the next few weeks. And yet, he already spends much of his time trying to protect his community: “I’ve always believed in prevention rather than cure…That’s what makes public health so appealing to me.”
Further Engaging Youth
It’s clear that these advocates are part of a much broader trend of youth advocacy against NTDs. Youth interest in public health is growing across Africa and health leaders recently got the chance to celebrate this development on August 12th, International Youth Day.
Toyin Saraki, President of Wellbeing Foundation Africa, wrote: “One thing is clear: young people are demonstrating leadership and boldness in tackling the pressing contemporary challenges of our time. [They] must be empowered to protect our planet and life.” Toyin points out that people aged 15 to 24 account for 16% of the global population, making them vital to achieve progress in health and development. In Africa—the youngest continent—60% of the population is under age 25.
Dr. Malecela says that this is a strength and an opportunity. She uses her platform to amplify youth advocates and urges young people to be proactive in making change.
“We look to youth for passion, inspiration and innovation,” said Dr. Malecela. “It’s your future on the line.”
Each of the advocates described here are clearly committed to building a better future for their communities. They want to be a part of the generation that sees the elimination of NTDs and are pursuing that goal with persistence and passion.
I foresee them doing great things and, with the ability to connect globally as we each work locally, perhaps we’ll have the chance to meet in person someday.
Upon seeing the The Task Force’s headquarters online, Tumaini wrote: “Team #NTDs Tanzania might visit this office one day.”
Indeed we are all Team #NTDs, and we at The Task Force are grateful for the support of public health advocates from all around the world.