Photo credit: UNDP Zimbabwe.

TB, Malaria and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality globally. They are diseases of poverty mostly prevalent among disadvantaged communities with high levels of inequality. In 2012, TB claimed the lives of 1.3 million people, 95 of whom lived in low and middle income Countries (LMICs). In the same year, more than 600,000 lives were lost to malaria, the vast majority of them young African children. Tropical diseases, although not always fatal, can lead to delayed growth in children, impaired cognition and memory, malnutrition, organ damage, blindness, disfigurement and permanent disability.

The inter-connected challenges of innovation and access

The term “neglected” says it all. While NTDs account for 11.4 percent of the global disease burden, the investment in developing diagnostics, medicines and vaccines to treat them is disproportionately low. Of the 1,556 new medicines approved between 1975 and 2004, only 1.3 percent were specifically developed for tropical diseases and TB.

However, even as the number of new health technologies coming to market increases slowly, the capacity in several LMICs to deliver these products to patients in need remains very weak.  Health systems need to be strengthened so that these medicines can be delivered and accessed in a timely manner.

Addressing two sides of the same coin

To address the issues of NTDs, a synergistic approach is needed; one which brings together:

· Increasing levels of research and development for new vaccines, diagnostics and medicines to treat NTDs, TB and malaria; and

· Increasing capacities of countries to deliver new health technologies to patients in need.

A recent initiative supported by the Government of Japan and UNDP promotes research and development by making grants to international partnerships to discover and develop new health technologies. To date grants have been made to accelerate the development of ground-breaking products to fight TB, schistosomiasis, Chagas disease and parasitic roundworms.

The other side of this coin is the Access and Delivery Partnership, led by UNDP in collaboration with WHO and PATH, and international NGO.  The partnership strengthens the capacity of LMICs to deliver new health technologies to patients most in need. This includes promoting enabling legal and  policy environments, effectively using data from epidemiological studies to address country specific challenges, monitoring clinical trials, formulating appropriate pricing and financing policies and resolving bottlenecks in the supply chain.

Since February, the partnership was launched in Indonesia, Tanzania, with activities to start shortly in Ghana. UNDP and partners will be looking at strategies to scale up this work more broadly.  

Tenu Avafia is Policy Advisor at the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, UNDP.