Update from Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene conferences

By Russell Stothard

Several COUNTDOWN staff travelled to Philadelphia, USA to attend two important events, the meetings of the COR-NTD 22-23rd October and the ASTMH 25-29th October.

The COR-NTD meeting brought together over 350 international delegates interested in research and control activities surrounding neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). In a combination of plenary lectures, panel discussions and themed break-out sessions, the state-of-the-art and future funding landscape was assessed and explored. COUNTDOWN researchers played significant roles at COR-NTD by organising two break-out sessions dedicated to addressing gender-related inequities and expanded access to praziquantel/albendazole.

The equity session was organised by Margaret Gyapong and Samantha Page, and chaired by Charles MacKenzie, and I was delighted that Camilla Ducker, of DFID joined the panel. The session drew attention to several current gender-related inequities that ranged from a variety of levels from the international to the community. Even within this audience there was confusion over the formal use of various de-worming drugs in pregnancy, and we simply don’t know the current gender composition of community health workers. Better knowledge of each has significant bearing on the management of several NTDs in women and exploration of new drug delivery channels that specific provide access to currently overlooked groups.

This theme of control of NTDs in pregnancy was again picked up in the session I organised with David Addiss where we discussed expanded access to praziquantel and albendazole in groups outside that of school-aged children. In the first presentation, Evan Secor did a remarkable job in setting the ground so well where key gaps were. If these gaps are not filled soon then several WHO 2020 targets for schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthiasis will not be met. The WHO desk officer for schistosomiasis Amadou Garba, highlighted a pertinent point that many women will still have female genital schistosomiasis and will have continued illness unless praziquantel campaigns can be effectively scaled-up. Future COUNTDOWN work was discussed by Sam Wanji identifying current access gaps in Cameroon. Moving towards biannual treatment with praziquantel is needed and Dan Colley (the Director of SCORE) discussed this benefit with regard to our current understanding of disease-inflammation and morbidity.

slide for the astmh blog

Concerning soil-transmitted helminthiasis, recent results from the TUMIKIA project  were highlighted which also have some bearings on the recent #wormwars debate on twitter. Similarly, Hugo Turner and Deirdre Hollingsworth drew attention to a clutch of NTD modelling papers – “Quantitative analysis of strategies to achieve the 2020 goals for neglected tropical diseases: where are we now?”. Here expanded access to treatment was discussed in relation to future reduction of parasite transmission, and hopefully COUNTDOWN will pave the way forward on how to do it.

Other disease-specific highlights at the COR-NTD meeting included evidence that triple combination therapy of ivermectin/albendazole/DEC could more sharply curtail microfilaraemia and transmission of lymphatic filariasis. In addition, a new initiative concerning research on soil-transmitted helminthiasis was announced by Judd Walson as to be supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and based at the Natural History Museum, London.

During the following week, there was a much larger attendance at the ASTMH. I was happy to attend a WHO and USAID chaired symposium on “Global NTD elimination: the spring towards the 2020 goals – five years out”. Perspectives from major health stakeholder were aired. It is very clear that a significant future bottleneck will be in disease diagnostics and NTD surveillance. Increasing access to state-of-the-art diagnostics is needed now and will be critical to mobilise the diagnostic sector in a similar manner in which industrial philanthropy within the pharmaceutical sector has taken place with drug donations. To identify these diagnostic gaps and encourage actions, COUNTDOWN is set to explore the best interface and find synergy with polio-disease surveillance systems, so watch this space.

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Some reflections on #wormwars from a communications perspective

By Kate Hawkins, Pamoja Communications

As a communication person who spends my day grappling with how to get people in power to take some notice of the evidence that my projects are generating it is strange to be connected to a piece of research that ‘goes viral’. When I opened up Twitter to see that my feed had been taken over by the hash tag #wormwars I had that horrible stomach lurching reaction. The volume of tweets and opinion pieces on the recent systematic review and reanalysis of a pivotal piece of research on de-worming in Kenya has been difficult to keep up with.

On the one hand this is a great opportunity for people in the Neglected Tropical Disease world. Worms are, well neglected, and so it is heartening to see them the subject of debate and media attention. On the other hand there is inevitably some misinformation flying around, for example that deworming is ineffective when of course deworming stops people having worms which is undoubtedly a good thing.

An ongoing and inclusive discussion

Let’s be clear, there is no ‘last word’ when it comes to the evidence base on worms. This is an evolving discussion which involves stakeholders around the world, not least those people whose kids are grievously effected. To prevent this iteration of the #wormwars being a flash in the pan is going to require some concerted efforts to foster a sensible, sustainable, and ongoing debate. Crucially this needs to include people from countries where large scale deworming programmes are ongoing (planning them, implementing them and benefiting from them).

This has been notably absent from the discussion so far with one exception.

Enough with all the machismo already

The strength of evidence is an important thing to debate. There’s no doubt about that. It is also true that when it comes to uptake decision makers and citizens need a whole range of evidence to draw on. That’s because we are working in diverse settings and there are very particular real world challenges that need to be dealt with – and sometimes these are very localised.

This means that we really have no alternative but to work in multi-disciplinary teams and bring a plurality of voices and opinions into the way that we frame research questions, the methods that we use, and the way that we communicate the evidence (including its applicability to the challenges that people are grappling with).

This approach is really at odds with a style of evidence generation that assumes that there is one answer to a complex social, ecological, political, and ethical issue such as Neglected Tropical Disease. I find a very adversarial approach to discussing the evidence base very off putting. Some people love a row, I am not one of them.

I am particularly concerned about the metaphor of war being used in research communication. I have friends and family in Syria dealing with food shortages, shelling, snipers, ransom demands for kidnapped relatives, prolonged family separation, post-traumatic stress, and the terror of sending their sons off on the long journey across continents through barbed wire and multiple law enforcement agencies to a precarious safety in countries of relative stability (and extreme racism and Islamophobia). That is a war folks. Let’s be clear that what we are dealing with is a disagreement between academics and try and get a sense of proportion.

So over the next couple of YEARS we promise that we will keep feeding you news and new evidence on worms. We hope that some of those people who got caught up in the excitement of a hash tag war will continue to engage. Watch this space.

Photo credit: Omar Chatriwala Continue reading

The official launch of the COUNTDOWN programme in Ghana

By Adriana Opong

On Thursday, 15th October 2015, the Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) Programme under the Public Health Division of the Ghana Health Service officially launched the COUNTDOWN Programme in Ghana. In attendance were key stakeholders and the NTD national Ambassador Dr. Joyce Aryee as the chair for the launch. The Director-General of the Ghana Health Service and a representative of the Minister of Health were also present.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana’s commitment to the elimination and management of NTDs is in an advance stage. The NTD Programme treats over 12 million people for onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis and over 4 million school – aged children for schistomiasis and soil helminthiasis annually. But there still remain cases and issues of hotspots areas of infection for both lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis, access to medication for some of the diseases is still limited and a more integrated approach to a single programme is required.

In the her acceptance speech, Dr. Joyce Aryee, the chair explained that NTDs are a class of diseases that can be eliminated, and that the launch of COUNTDOWN represents the last lap towards riding Ghana off the NTD burden of morbidity and mortality.

Within the COUNTDOWN Programme, the project activities in Ghana’s will include:

  • Filling the gap with Implementation Research
  • Integration at the different levels of health systems, NTDs programmes within and beyond the health sectors
  • Assessing and informing the equity, efficiency and sustainability of current NTD approaches
  • Looking for strategies on dealing with the issue of hotspots
  • Linking research to policy through dialogue and consultation

The implementing partners in the COUNTDOWN Project Ghana, are the NTD Programme of the Ghana Health Service, The Dodowa Health Research Centre (DHRC), and the Ghana Health Service and the Water Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The Ghana management team is under the leadership of Dr Nana- Kwadwo Biritwum, the Programme Manager, Dr. Margaret Gyapong the Director of the Dodowa Health Research Centre and Dr. Mike Osei- Atweneboana.

Dr. Ebenezer Appiah-Denkyira in his welcome address said,  “We need not wait for Neglected Tropical Diseases to create epidemics before we take action on Neglected Tropical Diseases  this will no longer be neglected”. A representative of the Minister of Health delivered the keynote address for the launch. The overview of the COUNTDOWN programme and a message from the Director, COUNTDOWN was presented by Julie Irving.

“Replacing the lid on this can of worms” is not an option we should want or hope to achieve

By Mark Taylor, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

Having spent some time trying to absorb the vast quantity (and diverse quality) of material generated on #wormwars has led to me to see the debate as a wonderful opportunity for COUNTDOWN. Although I have read much, but by no means all of the material I have focused on two key sources, which I found to be most helpful in forming a view within a short timeframe, The Cochrane Review and the article Worms, Wisdom and Wealth from 2013 by Don Bundy and colleagues in Trends in Parasitology (from the last #wormwar battle in 2012). I encourage you all to read both articles, which for the most part are quite readable and provide a measured and informed summary of the key arguments from both sides of the debate.

In a nutshell

We have the key gold standard for evidence (as considered by many, but not all health professionals – a Cochrane Review) concluding that mass de-worming of ‘soil transmitted helminths’ (STH) from school children has little or no measurable health benefit. The response from the entire STH Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) stakeholder community aggressively defended the policy, denouncing the review and rapidly releasing endorsing statements of “No change in policy”.

The consensus (which is thin on the ground to say the least) now appears to be that more evidence is needed and is unlikely to come only from more randomised controlled trials (RCT) and should include social science and economic evidence. RCTs and other research should be on contemporary populations and be sufficiently powered and designed to detect the relevant outcomes.

Some historical context

My initial reaction to #wormwars was shaped by a long history of skirmishes and battles from 2000 onwards on this debate (one comment from key stakeholder in the current debate – ‘here we go again’). Previously there was lively debate and argument in the literature. The outcome was no change in policy by the World Health Organization. So, I assumed that this time around it would be more of the same. A flurry of arguments over the details of statistical analysis together with polarised views of the ‘quality’ and sources of evidence used to support policy, i.e. the ‘gold standard’ evidence (Cochrane Review of RCTs) said no benefit, whilst other evidence including social and economic evidence, historical success of similar programmes in US and other evidence was therefore used to support and expand WHO policy. Result: no change in policy, even an expansion.

I have no particular strong criticism of the Cochrane review per se. But, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that no matter how compelling or robust the evidence might be, including new re-analysis and de-bunking of an influential trial, this change in evidence will never be adopted by policy makers as they use different evidence to promote and guide their policies. No sign of a retreat from either pole of the argument – perhaps even more polarised than before.

What kind of evidence do we need to make policy decisions?

One problem with the Cochrane Review is that it includes some RCTs conducted 15 years ago with drug regimes and strategies that have already been advanced and changed. So this does not reflect the evidence of current strategies, which can use different regimes and are targeting different populations (for example, communities treated for lymphatic filariasis will have added benefits on the impact on their STH as combinations of worm drugs are used). So the data is not contemporary from the perspective of strategies or target populations. This is a generic problem caused by the length of time it takes to conduct and analyse trials and create the critical mass of trials sufficient to perform meta-analysis.

Another problem with much of the #wormwars broader debate is in the detail. Both sides and journalistic précis have moved the debate out of the context of what the review actually concluded, which has only served to confuse the issue. The broad use of the term “worms” and “de-worming” has led some to extend the reviews outcomes to all worm Neglected Tropical Diseases other than just the STH that were the subject of the review. These include three distinct types of worm. Roundworms, hookworms and whipworms.

The outcomes of the review therefore do not apply to the other NTD worms, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis, for which there is robust evidence of health and economic benefit using mass de-worming.

So why no benefit of mass de-worming for STH? This might relate to the more benign and chronic morbidity that these worms cause. The three types of STH worm all have different pathologies (mostly benign in the majority of cases) and population frequencies and uneven geographical distribution, which may confound some of the RCT outputs. Although the worms are mostly only few in number in most cases, some “wormy” people get high worm burdens, which can cause clinically relevant symptoms. ‘Hookworms’ (the vampires of the wormy world) attach to the gut wall as adults (after migrating though the skin, heart and lungs as larvae) with their hooks and feed on our blood and cause anaemia. ‘Roundworms’ (Ascaris) can block the intestine and cause tissue damage as they migrate from the gut to the liver and lungs to be coughed up back into the gut. Whipworms (Trichuris) burrow into the bowel wall and can cause bloody diarrhoea and rectal prolapse. These symptoms might be rare, but how can removing these risks from children in extreme poverty be bad or of no benefit?

The key is probably related to mass treatment and community level analysis (i.e. the majority of the target population have few or no worms, which will mask the rare and subtle benefit to health, which may develop over long periods of infection and re-infection and so not captured by existing historic RCT design endpoints) combined with rapid re-infection rates (limited worm free periods in treated populations). We also know that the drugs are not given at doses or frequencies, which are the best for removing worms, but at doses that are considered to be safe and easy to give to communities. Most of the trials only used one drug, which is known to be only effective against one of the STH trinity (Ascaris).  So lack of existing RCT evidence maybe due to poor trial design, sub-optimal drug efficacy, frequency or coverage and endpoint analysis coupled with minor or subtle improvements in health, which are challenging to measure. Hence we need different approaches to measure and gather evidence.

Even if the evidence for mass de-worming of communities is based on flawed conclusions from the original RCT data in relation to some of the educational/health benefits (as assessed by RCTs), it is counter-intuitive to many that such a relatively cheap and easily delivered intervention is not of any benefit to these communities.

A natural human reaction to having worms is – get rid of them! Even the Cochrane review states: “It is good medical practice that children known to be infected with worms should receive treatment. This is obvious and not the subject of this Cochrane Review.” Hence the presence of strong beliefs and even faith – that it must have some benefit.

What next?

We need to continue to support Cochrane reviews as one of the primary ways of assessing the evidence from RCTs, but to acknowledge that other forms of evidence (albeit with their own advantages/disadvantages) are used by NTD policy makers from a variety of sources to inform policy decisions. The evidence from social science and health economics studies on STH programmes is underway within COUNTDOWN in four endemic countries and will meet the clarion call for more and better data on contemporary populations to provide robust evidence to support scale-up of existing strategies or promote alternative strategies.

This evidence will, for the first time, focus heavily on sector wide endemic country views from individuals, communities, national programme managers, Ministry of Health staff and international policy makers. Understanding how best to translate new evidence into policy in the context of this complex process is something that COUNTDOWN is addressing through multi-trans-disciplinary approaches and sector wide engagement to produce research uptake to deliver informed choices for policy makers.

We welcome informed debate on whether the Cochrane review has been appropriately conducted under the published criteria for such reviews, but we do not support suppression of meta-analysis in this area. Instead we have designed different approaches through social science and health economics to address the deficiency in existing evidence to either promote scale-up of current strategies or adoption of alternative strategies.

Photo credit: Sabin Institute (to reflect what de-worming programmes look like rather than an endorsement of the content of this site)

COUNTDOWN launched in Cameroon on the 9th October 2015

By Russell Stothard

This week past has been an exciting and especially busy time for COUNTDOWN with the launch of the programme in Cameroon.  The event took place during the afternoon of Friday 9th October within the Ministry of Public Health as overseen by His Excellency André Mama Fouda, the Minister.  Attending this high-level meeting were several stakeholders representing key organisations involved in control and elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). Within the Ministry, I was delighted to be joined by LSTM colleagues, Professor Mark Taylor and Dr Joe Turner, who had been visiting the University of Buea, as well as, by Kate Hawkins of Pamoja Communication and Nathan Kaemena who was documenting the event.

At the launch presentations were made by Professors Louis-Albert Tchuem-Tchuenté and Samuel Wanji who broadly reviewed the history and progress of national control campaigns against the five key NTDs which COUNTDOWN will study. I was also given the chance to present on behalf of the broader cross-collaborations within our consortium which unite both Francophone and Anglophone perspectives. I was particularly honoured that His Excellency spoke in English whilst acknowledging that where possible discussions would take place in French for those able to do so.

After the meeting was opened to the floor, open discussions raised several important issues concerning the harmonisation of NTD control across different sectors within the health system. Furthermore, there were specific television and radio interviews which sought to identify the importance of COUNTDOWN research in Cameroon and how it would benefit those currently living with and affected by NTDs. It became clear that navigating the transition from control to elimination needs careful explanation, especially as our five studied NTDs are in different stages of scale-up of control.

Over the following days these press interviews were expanded into other broadcasts on national radio and TV with specific discussion on ‘morning safari’. This included fielding questions from the listeners and discussing at length some of the specifics of diseases in Cameroon. It was clear that many suffer from filariasis and were asking how to best manage their swollen limbs and associated conditions. In addition, it was noted that greater attention should be given to control of urogenital schistosomiasis by developing better connections and dialogue with those in the reproductive health sector. Looking to the future, empowering women to better understand female genital schistosomiasis is clearly needed.

During the following week Kate oversaw the COUNTDOWN research uptake meeting and I was delighted to see Nathan take so many beautiful portrait shots of those attending.  These images will soon find their way into a meeting report and website so we can be proud of those who are working within the COUNTDOWN team, understanding a little bit better the strengths of our team.

water pump

On the final day of our stay in Cameroon, Louis arranged for the press to visit a field site near the trading town of Makenene which was approximately a 3 hour drive West of Yaounde. In this region, three species of schistosome can occur, however, through the installation of a water pump just over 10 years ago, there have been significant reductions in the transmission of urogenital schistosomiasis. In discussion with the local chief, it was clear that this brought many health benefits to the local community with those now largely free of the signs and symptoms of disease. I was particularly happy to see this change for the good as elsewhere such schemes fail in the long-term. For example, borehole pumps often fall into disrepair or are used unequally by community members who decide that not to use them in favour of other unsafe water sources.

After searching for snails in the small streams and pools around Makenene to highlight to the press the importance of safe water supplies, I was a little sad to leave this town for it provided me with a little slice of the reality behind which the COUNTDOWN consortium is operating. For me, it is incredibly important to experience a reality of those environments where interventions against NTDs are waged and engage directly with those communities we aim to serve in our research.

Calling time on Neglected Tropical Disease: COUNTDOWN launches in Cameroon

By Kate Hawkins
We are delighted to announce that the COUNTDOWN programme in Cameroon was launched on the 9 October by the Ministry of Public Health. The launch was overseen by His Excellency the Minister, André Mama Fouda.

Neglected Tropical Diseases in Cameroon

Over the years remarkable progress has been made in scaling-up NTD control interventions in Cameroon. The number of people treated has increased up to 10.6 million for lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis, 2.8 million for schistosomiasis, and 8.3 million for soil-transmitted helminthiasis in 2014. However, we are still short from our targets, and there remain several challenges especially with the shift of our ambition from control to elimination of most of these illnesses. This requires a readjustment of our main strategies with more intensified and combined interventions needed.

Within the framework of the COUNTDOWN Project, activities in Cameroon will include:
• Extending praziquantel treatment for schistosomiasis to all populations in need, especially pre-school aged children and pregnant women, and establish biannual treatment in school aged children
• Extending treatment in onchocerciasis hypo-endemic areas and explore alternative treatment strategies where lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis are co-endemic with Loa loa
• Sharing learning on state-of-the-art diagnostics, epidemiology, and social sciences with other COUNTDOWN countries to build a strong consortium in West and Central Africa.

His Excellency the Minister of Public Health, André Mama Fouda, says:
“Control of NTDs is a long endeavour where we need the full engagement of many health stakeholders. I am reassured that we have strong commitment which can be further expanded in Cameroon. I am certain that this work will make significant steps towards local elimination of certain NTDs.”

The implementing partners for COUNTDOWN in Cameroon are the Neglected Tropical Disease Programme in the Ministry of Health and the University of Buea under the leadership of Professor Louis-Albert Tchuem Tchuenté and Professor Samuel Wandji.
COUNTDOWN Country Manager, Professor Louis-Albert Tchuem Tchuenté, Cameroon, highlights:

“This is an exciting time for action on NTDs, especially with the recent China-Africa Health Development Framework including cooperation for schistosomiasis elimination. We are pleased to be part of a much larger movement which is pressing for a new approach to the very old problem of NTDs.”

Co-Infections: Impact on Neglected Tropical Diseases

By Kate Hawkins

Next week the 9th European Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health will meet in Basel, Switzerland. We are delighted that our team member Margaret Gyapong will be there representing COUNTDOWN.

Margaret will speak in a satellite session on co-infections and their impact on Neglected Tropical Diseases. Panellists in this session will talk about female genital schistosomiasis and health systems, the association of the schistosome infection with inflammatory response profiles and the challenges of co-infections, in particular Visceral Leishmaniasis (VL) and HIV.

If you are going to the conference do pop along and give Margaret your support. The satellite is on Monday 7 September from 12:15 to 13:15 in the Sydney Meeting Room.

We look forward to reading your tweets!

A research update on schistosomiasis for COUNTDOWN

By Russell Stothard

It is important to ensure that COUNTDOWN’s implementation research is best guided by the latest information from other research groups and Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) programmes.  Being invited to present my work, I found the 14th International Symposium on Schistosomiasis an exciting place to learn about research outputs from groups such as SCORE, the Brazilian National Control Programme and from individuals presenting their own state-of-the-art research. Much of this was captured by video interviews and posted on Facebook, a very valuable learning resource.

Amongst others, Phil LoVerde’s work on redeveloping oxaminquine to have activity against all schistosome species was the best example of how meticulous molecular studies breathe new life into older drugs. Having an alternative treatment that can synergise with praziquantel (PZQ), our only antischistosomal drug, is important to safeguard future options in chemotherapy.  That said and in terms of public health, several of us highlighted why better access and scale-up of PZQ treatment was needed now, especially if WHO 2020 targets are to be realised.

As part of a round table discussion addressing the needs of treatment of infants and preschool children, I presented our recent work in Uganda alongside colleagues from the paediatric praziquantel consortium  who are developing an orally dispersible tablet.  The need for better PZQ access now is very clear and next month WHO-Geneva will convene a two day meeting to review and revise their treatment guidelines as the magnitude of this problem in young children is exposed. This has important repercussions for progress towards the WHO 2020 targets.

The Question and Answer Panel on paediatric schistosomiasis

It is now widely accepted that young children develop overt disease in later childhood and also contribute to disease transmission. For these two reasons alone there is now sufficient international interest and momentum to provide treatment to them which our COUNTDOWN work will move towards changing national control policies in each of our supported countries.

Whilst we already know that schistosomiasis control goes beyond more traditional aspects of the health system, forging dialogue between the Ministries responsible for agriculture, water and sanitation and education is needed. The round table session sponsored by SCORE in the attempt to eliminate urogenital schistosomiasis from Zanzibar provided the latest information about these island-wide trials on Unguja and Pemba.

The challenges of bringing such high-level stakeholders together in a co-ordinated was discussed by David Rollinson. He also showed that provision of biannual PZQ treatment could depress infection prevalence but only so far, and not evenly across the studied communities (i.e. shehias). Furthermore, health education and sanitation initiatives did not yield the expected declines in transmission with infection prevalence even increasing in some shehias despite intensified control. These results show we are still a long way from breaking transmission on the island, and better strategies for elimination of hotspots are needed. The importance of snail control and the difficulties associated with it were discussed at length. Simply put, if we cannot prevent and contain infections in snails we will never eliminate schistosomiasis in people.

About access to PZQ treatment, other studies from SCORE in East and West Africa showed that ‘treatment holidays’ were not a good idea and should be abandoned. A ‘treatment holiday’ is defined as the intervening period between biennial rather than annual tablet administration. The original rationale was that in communities where prevalence was between 10-50% it was thought that biennial treatment alone was sufficient and cost-effective to bring the disease under control when PZQ was under much shorter supply. This is clearly not the case and PZQ treatment regimes, as per Zanzibar, are now favouring biannual as the only way forward as more PZQ is available globally. Future COUNTDOWN workplans will investigate more formally biannual treatment regimes in terms of its operational feasibility and health impact significance.

Lester Chitsulo receiving his award from Rosa SoaresDuring the conference, a major honour was bestowed on Lester Chitsulo in thanks of his long standing work on schistosomiasis control based from the WHO-Geneva office. For just over 15 years, Lester was the NTD (schistosomiasis) desk-officer and had recently retired, being succeeded by Amadou Garba. Other distinguished retired researchers included Zilton Andrade and Ronaldo Amaral.

One of the important aspects within this meeting was witnessing the close association of the National Control Programme of Brazil with the many researcher and research arms of academia. In Africa, it was noted that this research capacity was much lower and needed a significant boost.

Owing to recent financial fragility within Brazilian economy and associated health budget cuts, this meeting was nearly cancelled. I therefore very warmly congratulate Mitermayer Reis and the symposium organisers for their continued perseverance, welcoming this opportunity for up-to-date discussions which help frame our future COUNTDOWN research with best available information.

 

New article in Open Democracy #NTDs #schisto

By Kate Hawkins

It can cause bleeding and discharge from the vagina, genital lesions, nodules in the vulva, discomfort and pain during sex, sub-fertility, miscarriage and can effect vulnerability to HIV and the Human Papilloma Virus. Yet it is completely off the radar of most people working on sexual and reproductive health and Neglected Tropical Diseases.

If you haven’t read our latest article on urogenital schistosomiasis in Open Democracy it is worth a look.

The World Health Organization’s working definition of sexual health is:

“…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”

We think that between 100 and 120 million people are living with urogenital schistosomiasis which is most likely causing damage to their urinary and reproductive systems. Why isn’t it on the radar of policy makers, activists and researchers? Why hasn’t more been done to explore the causes and the consequences of this illness?

Is it to do with a squeamishness when it comes to talking about sex and sexuality?

These are some questions that urgently need to be answered if we are serious about sexual health and rights for all.

Looking back and looking forward: What we learnt from the NTD Day

By Sally Theobald, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

“If you do not know where you came from you will not know where you are going” Akan proverb cited by Daniel Boakyo, APOC

Looking backwards and learning from history in order to inform and improve current and future partnerships to address Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) was a key theme that emerged from LSTM’s NTD day. David Molyneux kicked off the day with an overview of the great (white, male) scientists of the past – Prof Ronald Ross who made the links between malaria and mosquitoes and Prof Dutton who identified the cause of sleeping sickness. This historical overview is interesting and important and the resulting records, photos and artefacts reflect the scientific breakthroughs of the time. Fast forward a hundred plus years to today’s meeting and key learning as we move forward to address NTDs is as follows:

Strategic collaborative partnerships are critical:

The critical importance of strategic collaborative partnerships to address NTDs within and beyond countries in the global south was clearly illustrated. Many of the presentations showcased partnerships between researchers, practitioners, pharmaceutical companies and policy makers. The importance of building relationships within and beyond the health system was clearly stressed, including multi-sectoral approaches and joint working with ministries and organisations working on agriculture, education and gender. Missing from the discussions (with the exception of a video from GSK) were the views, perspectives and experiences of people living with NTDs from endemic communities and front line health workers such as community health workers and community based drug distributors. This is not unusual in the world of NTDs or health per se but we need to rise to the challenge of developing meaningful relationships, methods and communication channels to ensure these voices and priorities have a seat at the table and inform ongoing NTD priorities and strategies.

The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts – we need multidisciplinary research:

The importance of multidisciplinary research going beyond the classic scientific and laboratory based approaches was also clearly illustrated – for example Steve Torr discussed the importance of health economics in assessing the costs of different approaches to stop tsetse flies in spreading sleeping sickness; while Imelda Bates outlined strategic and evidence informed steps for capacity building; and Russell Stothard discussed how social science research will inform and underpin the new COUNTDOWN programme of research. Social science methods also have much to offer in collating and analysing the views and experiences of affected communities who are all too often not at the policy table or the research debate. Photovoice, life histories and participatory approaches including workshops and seasonal calendars are all powerful methods which can capture, analyse and present the experiences of different stakeholders including women, men, girls and boys affected by disabling NTDs. The need for strategic and context embedded approaches to research uptake were also stressed – research that responds to country and community priorities and doesn’t simply “gather dust” on library shelves or in cyberspace.

Context is key:

There is a lot of exciting innovation and good practice in NTDs being rolled out in different contexts. But what works in one place may not work in another – we need to understand the physical, geographical, social, cultural and NTD contexts. Also contexts are not static: David Molyneux highlighted how unpredictable events such as extreme climate events, war and conflict bring additional challenges to NTD elimination. Alvaro Acosta Serrano showed how conflict in Syria is exacerbating the spread of cutaneous leishmaniasis – with war reducing the focus on disease control and how diseases can be spread as individuals and communities are forced to leave their homes to seek safety.

In COUNTDOWN we will generate evidence and also want to learn from the field as a whole and the NTD day provided a fantastic opportunity to learn from others and build new networks, particularly with NGO partners such as LEPRA and Sightsavers. It was heartening that there was a clear demand for social scientists to work in partnership with COR-NTDs, parasitologists, Ministries of Health and others, and great to meet other social scientists taking forward work on NTDs, such as Dr. Mary Amuyunzu-Nyamongo from the African Institute of Health and Development. As we move forward in COUNTDOWN we will rise to the challenge of further strengthening our strategic partnerships to deploy multidisciplinary research within different contexts to ensure our research feeds into policy and practice and meets the needs of different constituencies.