Guinea worm disease, leprosy, River Blindness, polio, malaria, schistosomiasis, trachoma and rabies: what do these diseases all have in common? They are all infections and viruses that cause serious health problems and deaths – that’s the bad news. But the good news is that each of those eight diseases is on its way to eradication, thanks to the hard work of medical professionals and community volunteers around the world.
This year, the Al Jazeera news network has chosen to focus on the good news, with an eight part documentary series about global health workers tracking eight deadly diseases affecting poor communities in the developing world. The series, “Lifelines: The Quest For Global Health” will look at positive advances in disease prevention and control, sharing constructive stories of health care progress around the world.
The eight diseases explored in Lifelines are all illnesses that concern neglected populations most. Rabies, for example, is a disease that has been eradicated in most parts of the world and yet persists in Asian and African rural communities – according to the World Health Organization, rabies kills 60,000 people in these countries every year. In humans, the rabies virus will cause an inflamed brain and spinal cord, eventually resulting in death.
Rabies vaccines are safe and effective, but unfortunately, there has been no large scale global push to get immunizations to those countries most effective. However, as shown in the Lifelines documentary, much work is currently underway in the Philippines to eradicate the disease. Community workers across the country are creating educational programs to improve rabies prevention and help doctors diagnose the disease, and at least one doctor has said that a recent push in efforts from health staff and the government means that by 2020, the Philippines may have rid itself of rabies entirely.
Rabies prevention efforts may be neglected due to a lack of awareness about the disease. Leprosy, on the other hand, is a well-known disease – but its associated stigma hinders treatment of the disease all the same. In many places, leprosy care has been kept separate from other health services and leprosy patients ostracized. Early diagnosis and treatment of leprosy is key to preventing disability and transmission of the disease; therefore, improving leprosy education and is key. The World Health Organization has also made available multidrug therapy to leprosy patients, for free. These drugs have the power to effectively cure leprosy – but only if health workers are able to get them to leprosy sufferers.
In its documentary, Al Jazeera will look at the thousands of health care workers who are not put off by the stigma of leprosy, but rather work with purpose to treat leprosy patients and expand education about the disease in order to reduce stigma in the future.
Unlike leprosy, onchocerciasis – more commonly known as River Blindness – is a disease that most of us haven’t even heard of. River Blindness most often occurs in remote rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, with some cases having been found in Latin America and Yemen as well. Caused by a parasitic worm,, the River Blindness infection passes to humans through the bites of blackflies carrying the parasite. Once infected, a person will experience inflamed skin tissue and lesions, especially around the eyes, leading to impaired vision and blindness.
As reported by Al Jazeera, health care advocates have been making great strides to eliminate River Blindness. Uganda once had 3.5 million people at risk of infection, but with education, better diagnostic tools and chemical treatments of river water, the disease is no longer endemic in eight of the 18 areas of Uganda once affected by River Blindness. Much of this eradication work is due to a nationwide elimination plan, created by the President of Uganda in partnership with the non-profit human rights group the Carter Center.
The spread of River Blindness can be prevented by treating the rivers in which black flies breed, and schistosomiasis is another parasitic disease that can infect sufferers through contact with water. Schistosomiasis is caused by parasitic worms that live in river snails; when humans come into contact with these snails during washing or swimming, the parasite can be transmitted. Once infected, a schistosomiasis sufferer will experience a host of chronic health effects: stunted growth, anemia, genital lesions, diarrhea, infertility and more. It’s estimated that 200 million people around the world are already suffering from schistosomiasis, and the World Health Organization has reported that another 779 million are at risk of contracting the disease.
Fortunately, schistosomiasis can be treated with an inexpensive medicine that must be taken once per year. Thanks to the efforts of health care workers, more and more people are being treated for the disease every year, and researchers have also recently noted that consistent treatment in children can prevent schistosomiasis from occurring during adulthood. Also, as featured in Lifelines, some communities are ridding themselves of parasite-carrying snails through innovative ecological measures that reduce snail populations in an environmentally positive way.
The good news about polio is that unlike schistosomiasis, it has nearly been eradicated from all parts of the world. The bad news is that because the disease is so contagious, even a few remaining cases mean a polio risk for every person in every single country. Still, health professionals have been working tirelessly for many years to eradicate the disease, and most evidence points to polio being on the verge of disappearing for good. Early childhood immunization is key, and as long as medical workers are able to keep vaccinating as many children as possible – especially in countries such Pakistan and Nigeria, where the disease persists and immunization campaigns are not always effective – then there is a good chance of global polio eradication.
Like the other seven diseases addressed in Lifelines, Guinea worm disease primarily affects disadvantaged communities. However, Guinea worm disease is especially dangerous to its low-income sufferers because while afflicted with the disease, it is difficult to continue working. Adults who have contracted Guinea worm disease will experience painful blisters and often ask children to stay home in order to keep the garden tended and food or money coming in for the whole family. With children missing out on their education to help an infected parent at home, the cycle of poverty is furthered.
Cases of Guinea worm disease are also slowly disappearing, thanks to efforts to improve drinking water facilities and to control areas at risk of an outbreak.