Health officials worry COVID-19 pandemic could stall progress against neglected tropical diseases

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(CNN) - Health officials from various nations met in a World Health Organization webinar on Wednesday to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on fights against neglected tropical disease around the world.

Global experts have long warned that the coronavirus pandemic could influence how nations are impacted by and responding to other communicable diseases — including neglected tropical diseases, a diverse group of illnesses that prevail in tropical and subtropical conditions across 149 countries.

Neglected tropical diseases or NTDs, such as dengue and guinea worm disease, affect about 1 in 6 people worldwide.

"In Rwanda, like many other countries in the world, we are fighting one enemy which is Covid-19 but other health essential programs may be also important to watch and follow so that we don't have double damage in this context," Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, director general of Rwanda Biomedical Centre, said during Wednesday's webinar.

"The evolving situation of Covid-19 has been always managed in the context that we adapt to what we see," Nsanzimana said. For instance, the distribution of essential health services or drug prescriptions to treat or prevent NTDs or other illness could be extended to eliminate the risk of someone breaking Covid-19 social distancing guidelines to access medications.

"I see a lot of things will be turning around — how we strengthen our health systems to deal with different threats," Nsanzimana said. "There’s expectation that we’re probably going to work double or work harder than before to prevent the consequences of infectious and neglected tropical diseases forward. … We don’t know what is going to be the next pandemic."

In January 2012, WHO published a document that provides a "roadmap" for countries to follow in tackling neglected tropical diseases.

The document establishes goals for nations to reach while working to control, prevent, eliminate and even eradicate certain NTDs. That roadmap was revised this year with new guidelines and goals for the year 2030.

Mwelecele Malecela, director of WHO's Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, said in a written announcement about the webinar, that shifts are needed both during and after Covid-19 to achieve the roadmap targets for 2030.

"WHO’s upcoming road map for neglected tropical diseases for 2021–2030 proposes a new model of operation," Malecela said in the announcement. "This road map, with its major shifts, is even more relevant in the context of Covid-19 as it promotes resilience, health system strengthening, community participation, equity, country ownership and enhanced partner involvement through integrated, multisectoral collaboration."

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, said during Wednesday's webinar that some of the methods used and steps taken to tackle neglected tropical diseases could be adopted in response to Covid-19 and vice versa.

"Those methods of helping people to understand, to incorporate, to be empowered to take action have been very much part of the NTD community-level interventions and they’re very much needed now so that people understand that I have to keep my distance, I have to wear my mask above my nose all the time," Moeti said. "We’ve seen that many people working in the programs have been repurposed to support the pandemic."

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Health officials worry COVID-19 pandemic could stall progress against neglected tropical diseases"