All that matters is our unbreakable spirit: Toward the end of NTDs in Tanzania

WHEN I was in elementary school, there were two days a year I had to submit “embarrassing homework” to school. I secretly and carefully took this “thing” that was literally too embarrassing to show my face from home to school. I couldn’t relax until the teacher called my name, and then I would submit it as if I were throwing it away.

South Korea enacted the “Parasitic Disease Prevention Act” as a national law in 1966. Since 1969, annual compulsory parasitic disease surveys have been conducted for elementary, middle and high school students nationwide. As a result, I had to submit a stool sample bag containing about a teaspoon of stool, to school. That was the “embarrassing homework”.

One day, I defecated on a piece of newspaper, opened the stool sample bag to collect the poop, and in the meantime, it was gone. After a while of panicking over the loss of a very important item, I realised that my dog “HAPPY” was licking her tongue as if she had just eaten a very nice dessert. Even now, at over forty years old, I still laugh thinking about it.

In fact, parasitic diseases are dangerous, infecting millions of people worldwide each year. Including some of these parasitic infections, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified 21 diseases as Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), which are literally a group of diseases prevalent in the tropics that are “neglected” in comparison to other infectious diseases. An estimated 1.65 billion people worldwide are exposed to these diseases, and they kill 560,000 people each year. For low-income groups in particular, NTDs are a scourge that casts the shadow of poverty even deeper.

Tanzania is also in a geographical environment where it cannot be free from NTDs. In fact, it is with no exaggeration to say that all Tanzanians are at risk. These NTDs can lead to disease, disability, or even death, which can lead to a decline in health and quality of life.

NTDs, which had been ‘neglected’ compared to other diseases, began to receive more funding and manpower from many donors such as international organizations, governments, non-governmental organizations, major pharmaceutical companies, and biomedical companies around the world, following the 2012 London declaration on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

The Tanzanian Ministry of Health has been working to eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminthiases, lymphatic filariasis, and trachoma since the launch of the Neglected Tropical Disease Control Program (NTDCP) in 2009. In particular, the Ministry of Health announced and implemented the National Master Plan for NTDs since 2012 to raise awareness of the seriousness of NTDs, reduce the disease burden of NTDs, and achieve sustainable development. As a result, the incidence and mortality rates of NTDs were significantly reduced, achieving remarkable results. Following this, the Ministry of Health is pursuing an even more enhanced new phase of the program from 2022 to 2026.

With this in line, many international organizations and government and non-governmental organizations of each country also participated in Tanzania’s NTDCP. As a result of their continuous cooperation and partnership, the efforts to monitor and manage NTD infections have led to significant changes in the prevalence of NTDs infections in Tanzania.

However, the number of budgets and personnel invested is still insufficient compared to the vast territory, and the sustainability of the infection control programs of domestic and foreign organizations is still not guaranteed. In particular, near Lake Victoria, Tanzania, where schistosomiasis is the most difficult to deal with, despite, the long-standing management programs of various organizations, the operation and management methods for NTDs.

Nevertheless, Dr George Kabona, the Program manager of the NTDCP at the Ministry of Health, and his team members are all determined. Dr. Gabona and his team will investigate, manage, and control schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthiases, which are major public health problems in Tanzania, by 2030, and eventually eradicate the aforementioned diseases in Tanzania. In fact, although this task may seem very difficult, there are a number of countries that have eradicated one or more NTDs through government and international cooperation programs As mentioned above, the Korean government’s policy of enacting relevant laws and conducting intensive parasite infection screenings for students nationwide is a good example of how to drastically reduce parasite infection rates in national level.

Since the last few decades, Tanzania has achieved record-breaking and remarkable economic growth and is becoming a country that is also attracting attention from around the world, not just in Africa. Since I first set foot in Tanzania in 2011, I have witnessed the changing landscape of Tanzania and the modernization of systems across society. The health sector is no exception. In particular, President Dr. Samia Suluhu Hassan’s progressive and bold political moves are seeking to transform the country in various ways to improve the development of hospitals and health facilities, increase access to medical facilities for all Tanzanian people, and provide maternal and child healthcare services on a continuous basis.

As an extension of this transformation, Tanzania Health Summit, held from October 3rd to 5th, featured the latest discussions on controlling and managing the various communicable and non-communicable diseases prevalent in Tanzania. The various agendas discussed at the conference were all animated by the common desire to free all Tanzanians from disease. These efforts by the Tanzanian government, as well as the strong interest of government organizations, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations working together with Tanzania, is a step for Tanzanians to find their “right to health,” which is a right that is both natural and universal.

Recently, the organization I work for Korea Foundation for International Healthcare (KOFIH) is working closely with the Ministry of Health’s NTDCP team to develop a plan to eradicate NTDs such as schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthiases. We are just starting to sketch out the plan and reviewing the methods and strategies that have been implemented so far and having heated discussions to find more effective implement components. In the process, I have come to realize an important fact: All That Matters is Unbreakable Spirit. This is the belief that if we never give up and keep working hard, we can eventually achieve our goals.

If all donors, the Tanzanian government, and other stakeholders use this belief as a source of nourishment and continue to enact legislation, strengthen policies, and provide financial and human resources for the fight against NTDs, then the day will surely come when all Tanzanians will be free from disease and regain their right to health. We will continue to move forward, step by step, with this belief in our hearts.

• The writer a PhD (Health Specialist), works with Korea Foundation for International Healthcare (KOFIH) and reachable via: +255 764 667 559

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