Jennifer Mangeard-Lourme, Programmes Officer for India shares an update from the NNN conference in her latest blog.  

There was a noticeable excitement in the room when the Secretary General of the Senegalese Ministry of Health declared the 8th NNN conference open. More than 300 participants representing 60 organisations from 45 countries, Non-Governmental Organisations, country ministries, bilateral and multilateral donors, academics, a global effort weighing $500 million, all were in the same room united by the fight against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). This force has been ever growing in recent years and is getting more and more powerful.

The event was hosted by Hellen Keller Foundation in Dakar, Senegal and lasted for a couple of days. It was financially supported by a group of eleven organisations and included 24 workshops on cross-cutting themes across NTDs. All revolved around the BEST framework, a joint and comprehensive framework that provides a standardised approach for NTD interventions. Discussions were lively, sometimes heated, always fruitful and we are all coming back from it with a long list of new ideas on how to improve our NTD programmes and serve people affected by these awful diseases better.

Here is a snapshot of conversations you could hear within the walls of the NNN conference.

In his introduction speech, Dr Raman Velayudhan, from the World Health Organisation (WHO), indicated that we crossed the billion mark of people covered by chemotherapy, mass drug administration campaigns that are essential in cutting diseases transmission. This is a remarkable achievement but equity to access preventive chemotherapy and NTD services more generally was pointed out as a remaining challenge.

In many countries, women have a lower educational background and struggle to access information; they are also highly dependent on others to travel to primary health facilities. The stigma linked to many NTDs is somewhat more devastating for women than for men who get more easily rejected, especially in the case of leprosy. It was discussed that more inclusive policies needed to be developed.

Sticking to one policy per disease or developing a common one for all NTDs was also a question raised at the conference. Representatives from Health Ministries opened up about the challenges of having too many policies and competing priorities. They encouraged the development of a comprehensive policy for all NTDs perhaps including a description of minimum requirements for all NTDs and some disease-specific information.

With the same idea in mind, a prototype database common to all NTDs was presented to the delegates. The purpose of the database is to consolidate all the resources on NTDs into one system, to monitor progress and to progressively provide evidence of the social, economic and mental consequences of NTDs. This means that in the near future, in addition to reporting numbers of pills taken and numbers of protective shoes provided, we will also be able to report on numbers of marriage broken, employment lost, so that we can show the real face of NTDs.

The inclusion of people affected by NTDs was also a key element of discussions. Following the motto “Nothing for us without us”, it was discussed that an increasing numbers of people affected by NTDs should be included in discussions at local, national and international level. Where this has been done for some diseases such as leprosy, the NTD community agreed to increase the participation of people affected more generally.

Finally, mental health was a topic which has gained more and more attention in recent conferences, and on the 8th NNN conference, practical steps for the integration of mental health into NTD programming were discussed. A new task group on Mental Well-Being and Stigma is also now in place to bring progress on this in the NTD community.

Many other topics were covered: improved vector control, the integration of WASH activities, quality assessment tools, sustainable ways of collaboration, the start of a world NTD day, the list goes on. As the new chair of the NNN, Tanya Wood said “NGOS are a great convener between policies and practice, between donors and the implementation, between science and operational research. This conference is a huge opportunity to celebrate this.”

The conference closed with the announcement that next year, the conference will be organised by the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia. The synergy between the NGOs and the Government Programmes has never been stronger. This is hugely promising.

Soon the day will come when the opening remarks of the conference are “I now declare the conference on tropical diseases open”, dropping the 'N' in NTDs, neglected no more.

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