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Tackling post-COVID poverty: Experts tell government to invest in NTDs

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The COVID-19 pandemic may have worsened Nigeria’s poverty level, but experts say investing in Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) elimination will improve the nations economy, preventing disability of millions of Nigerians. 
 
Recent figure from The World Poverty Clock shows that about 51 percent of Nigeria’s population have been living in extreme poverty since November 2019. According to projections, the effect of COVID-19 pandemic will be worsening this situation unless government chooses to intervene through measures such as funding NTDs elimination Programme.

NTDs, which are a group of infectious parasitic and bacterial infections such as elephantiasis, Buruli ulcer, river blindness and leprosy, among others, that disproportionally affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, have caused severe lifelong impairment on victims. 

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According to experts, more than half of Nigeria’s population are at risk of one or more of the NTDs- and are also at risk of low productivity and disability. 

Explaining more about this after a two-day media deliberation on NTDs, in Nigeria organised by the Federal Ministry of Information (FMoI) in collaboration with United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), in Ibadan, Oyo State, the National Coordinator, Neglected Tropical Diseases Elimination Programme (NTDEP) of the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH), Dr. Chukwuma Anyaike, said NTDs have kept millions of Nigerian parents out of work – limiting their potentials and leaving communities stuck in poverty. 

According to him, an estimated 122 million Nigerians from all the states of the federation are at risk of one or more of the NTDs. 
But those affected are not the only ones that are less productive; their family members who may have to stay at home to take care of the infected member also have their potentials limited, he said.   

“NTD interventions should be mainstreamed with the Northeast Development/Rehabilitation Programme, Niger Delta/Ogoni Clean Up Project, Sustainable Development Goals Project in Nigeria and Home Grown School Feeding Project. The office of the Sustainable Development Goal Programme can be mandated to include funding for NTD activities on an annual basis.” 

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Recall that the FMoH launched the 2016-2020 elaborate five-year-plan to eliminate NTDs by 2020, but as the year winds down, this target has yet to be met.  Reliable information reveals that no money has been released for this yet. According to the Strategic Plan, the funding gap is about $400 million. 

Anyaike appealed to government at all levels to pay more attention to NTDs and increase budget for it to save lives, banish poverty and improve the economy.

“There is need for government at all levels to release a proportion (0.05 per cent) of the total budget annually to implement critical activities, to fast-track NTDs elimination in Nigeria,” he said. 

Pointing out the impact of the disease on children, the Head, Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB) of the FMoI, Mrs. Mercy Megwa, explained: “NTDs keep children out of school and limit the potentials of parents hence the need to eliminate them.” 

Also, a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Specialist with UNICEF, Bioye Ogunjobi, said when you eliminate NTDs, you are likely to bring a lot of people out of poverty, mostly in rural communities.

“Because these diseases do not allow people to be productive, there’s need for government to do something about it. There is need for public awareness on NTDs that will enlighten people about the diseases and how people can be affected by it. A lot of people have one of these diseases and think it is spiritual, that someone has attacked them. And this is why we have the WASH-NTDs integration designed to prevent NTDs. Adherence to proper hygiene and safe sanitation, including use of toilet, regular hand washing and clean environment could assist in eliminating NTDs.

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“There are different NTDs that affect different states and governments need to know this, and there is need for them to invest in eliminating NTDs because of its impact on people’s lives. Funding is very important in eliminating NTDS. There is need for funding for supply chain management, and other logistics such as project vehicles. They are not going to pay for the drugs because the United States (U.S.) government provides the drugs. There is support from some states but this is very minimal, they need to do more, stakeholders charge. 

“In some states, there is no support from government. NTDs affect mostly the vulnerable and poor.” 
Reiterating on the need to pay more attention to these neglected diseases, UNICEF Communication Specialist, Dr. Geoffrey Njoku, said:

“While we focus on other diseases, like Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV), COVID-19, these NTDs are rebounding.”
On ways to prevent and manage these diseases, Njoku said good hygiene practice is very important. 

Explaining the NTDs-WASH integration, Chioma Mong, from Heal Foundation, said WASH is one of the strategies recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the control and elimination of the diseases.
 
“NTDs like soil transmitted helminthes can be prevented and controlled by WASH practices. Just like in COVID-19 prevention strategies, personal hygiene such as washing of hands can also help against NTDs control and this is why the Heal Foundation is stressing the importance of WASH in NTDs prevention and control,” she said. 

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