Women, the driving force behind progress in the fight against NTDs

By Katie Crowley and Scott McPherson, RTI International

Health volunteers distribute NTD medicines to students in Calabar, Nigeria. Photo Credit: RTI International/Ruth McDowall

Women are not only more likely to be affected by neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) but they are vital leaders on the frontlines fighting to control and eliminate them.

On International Women’s Day, we join the global community in celebrating women and their critical roles as volunteers, health workers, and champions in the fight to eliminate NTDs around the world. The theme for International Women’s Day 2018 is “Press for Progress”, reminding us that we must renew our focus to achieve global goals for gender parity.

But what does it mean to press for progress in the fight against NTDs?

Pressing for progress in the fight against NTDs

NTDs affect more than 1 billion people worldwide. These disabling and debilitating diseases thrive in the world’s poorest communities, especially those without access to improved sanitation and hygiene, areas which often have limited access to trained and supported health workers.

Women have higher infection rates of NTDs, are more likely to suffer from trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, more likely to develop life-threatening anemia as a result of worm infections, and more likely to face greater stigma from resulting disabilities. NTD infections can also prevent women from working, impacting themselves and their families economically.

In our work on USAID’s ENVISION Project, we see the negative impacts of these diseases, but we also get the opportunity to see them being eliminated in real-time. With more than 209 million no longer at risk for lymphatic filariasis and 73 million no longer at risk for trachoma in ENVISION-supported countries, the progress is measurable and compelling. But it’s in the stories of women working to eliminate these diseases that we often find ourselves most astonished.

It’s women carrying NTD medicines in conflict zones, women walking house to house in their communities after their day-time job, sometimes with several kids in tow, to get medicines to those that need them. Women who are committed to see health improve in their communities and want a different future for themselves and their families.

Meet Khady

For more than 25 years, Khady Samb has been a community health volunteer, assisting with all campaigns that Senegal’s Ministry of Health rolls out in her community. A mother and vendor, Samb has many competing roles, but she remains motivated to contribute to her community. “This work is important because I am involved in improving health of my community. I think it is useful that those who know help others,” Samb said.

Community health volunteer Khady Samb in the village of Ndieyene Mbangoye, Kébémer. Photo Credit: RTI International/Sam Phelps

The work is not easy. Reaching the population in her district with NTDs medicines requires Samb to travel great distances. “Personally, leaving my family for this job is a great sacrifice,” she said.

In the morning, we go to the health post to listen to instructions from the head nurse for the day, we take the drugs and the equipment. Given the great distances here and lack of transport was not easy. We use carts, sometimes vehicles, or even on feet we go to the village.

Then we raise awareness and begin work without stopping, house to house. At lunchtime, sometimes we stop to eat sometimes stop to rest and let people eat. The work continues until the target is reached or the twilight arrives.

Samb is excited about progress in her community and says her hope is that we see a reduction in these diseases. For her community, that progress is happening. During a recent survey, Samb’s district in Kébémer, Senegal, previously considered endemic for trachoma, was found to be on track to eliminate the disease.

Achieving Gender Equity in NTD Control and Elimination

In 2012, ENVISION began collecting treatment numbers by gender, allowing us to measure our project’s success in reaching both men and women. Today, we can say with confidence, we are reaching men and women equitably with NTD preventive treatments.

Through ENVISION, we also strive to ensure women are involved at every level – strategy, planning, and delivery. In fiscal year 2016, more than 1.1 million people were trained by ENVISION on the planning and implementation of mass treatment campaigns for NTDs, more than 42% of whom were women.

Around the world, women are leading the fight against NTDs. At RTI International, we know that women play a crucial role in the health workforce, with global estimates showing that women make up 70% of the health and social workforce. Women, like Khady, are change agents pressing for progress in their communities, and we believe the continued investment in the health workforce has enormous potential beyond any one health campaign.

On International Women’s Day, please join us in celebrating the many women pressing for progress in the fight to eliminate NTDs.

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