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Students urge Congress to combat neglected tropical diseases

Walk across an American college campus today and you will be offered an almost overwhelming number of opportunities to get involved and give back, with students seeking donations or offering information about issues ranging from cancer research to education in low-income countries and every other worthy cause in between.

As representatives on the END7 campaign’s Student Advisory Board, we have chosen to focus our energy on a less visible cause: seven neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) afflicting over one billion of the world’s most impoverished people. We are working to involve our campus communities in the fight to control and eliminate NTDs, a group of diseases spread by parasites and bacteria that blind, disfigure and disable. NTDs perpetuate the cycle of poverty by making it difficult for children to obtain an education, for parents to work and for communities to reach their full potential. Pharmaceutical companies have agreed to donate medication needed to treat these diseases, which can be distributed for just 50 cents per person per year; however, NTD treatment programs are chronically underfunded due to international focus on more well-known diseases.

{mosads}We are taking action now because we do not want to wait until graduation to be a part of the solution to the global burden of NTDs. We have formed student chapters at our universities to support END7, an international advocacy and fundraising campaign led by the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases. In the past two years, END7 student supporters at more than 50 universities from Chandigarh, India, to Houston, Texas, have raised more than $50,000 to fund mass drug administrations to treat and prevent NTDs and engaged our peers in advocacy and awareness-raising activities.

While our time working with the END7 campaign has been marked by many encouraging successes, we know that our efforts at a grassroots level must be complemented by national and international support for the fight against NTDs to succeed. The United States has been a leader in the fight to control and eliminate NTDs, supporting mass drug administration programs in 25 countries through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s NTD Program. Since 2006, modest funding for this program — making up less than 1 percent of all U.S. spending on global health — has delivered more than one billion NTD treatments donated by pharmaceutical companies, making the program the largest public-private partnership in agency history. Yet, funding for this critical global health program is at risk of being cut by $13.5 million in the FY 2016 budget.  

On April 22, more than two dozen END7 students are taking action to prevent this funding cut advocating for increased investments in the USAID program by reaching out to our representatives on Capitol Hill with a petition, signed by thousands of students at universities from coast to coast. As the next generation of world leaders, we know we must speak out to let our lawmakers know the magnitude of this challenge — and the enormous opportunity we have to help.  

Today, the future of global health is at a crossroads. The United States has been the powerhouse behind efforts  to alleviate a great deal of human suffering through treatment of NTDs, a “best buy” in global health and development. In the words of Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez of the USAID Global Health Bureau, “Now is the time for increased investment from countries and donors to ensure that NTD drugs can and will be provided. Losing this investment will turn back the clock on progress.” It is critical that the U.S. government prioritize NTD funding as an expression of solidarity with our global partners around the world. The efforts of our fellow university students to address a wide range of global problems are admirable, but it is clear that the cycle of extreme poverty cannot be broken while neglected tropical diseases threaten the health of more than one billion people.

As we look toward the future, we hope our leaders in Congress and around the world will join the fight to control and eliminate NTDs. They have the opportunity to contribute the modest but essential resources necessary to end the suffering caused by these diseases.

Gannon, University of Texas at Austin (’16), and Lo, Rice University (’13), Stanford University School of Medicine (’18), are members of the END7 Student Advisory Board. Other board members contributing to the op-ed and the effort are: Ali Carter, Georgetown University (’15); Lauren Crossman, University of Cincinnati (’16);  Alice Easton, Princeton University (’09), Imperial College London (PhD ’17); Megan Huang, St. John’s University (’17); Kelley Hussey, Johns Hopkins University (’15); Tahseen Karim, University of Texas at Austin (’14); University of Texas Medical School at Houston (’18); Taylor Kavanagh, Boston College (’16); Kathryn Keough, University of Notre Dame (’17); Sarah Kraft, Boston University (’15); Blaise Langan, Baylor University (’16); Laura McCulloch, Dartmouth College (’16); Jenn Oswald, Illinois Wesleyan University (’15); Lindsay Selman, James Madison University (’16); Josiah Strawser, Northeastern University (’15); Jessica Heejin Yoo, University of Virginia (’16).


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