Bill Gates thanks Sheikh Mohamed for support to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases

At an event at Expo 2020, officials announce that Niger is poised to be the first country in Africa to eliminate river blindness

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with Bill Gates.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with Bill Gates.

By Web Desk

Published: Thu 9 Dec 2021, 9:22 PM

Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates thanked the role of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince in fighting Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) across the world.

At Expo 2020 Dubai, he said the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, in initiating the Reaching the Last Mile Fund (RLMF) brought new technologies and approaches to the NTD sector.

It was announced at Expo 2020 Dubai that Niger completed the necessary evaluations in line with guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to certify the elimination of onchocerciasis (commonly known as river blindness), unlocking billions for the country’s economy over the last several decades.

Niger is preparing the requisite paperwork for WHO verification and pending certification, and the country is now poised to be the first in Africa to declare it has eliminated the NTD — a feat once considered impossible. After over 40 years of work to control or eliminate river blindness in West Africa, the achievement in Niger provides a proof of concept that elimination is possible, not just in West Africa but across the entire continent.

An event was held on Thursday in the Niger Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai to celebrate this progress and honour Niger. The event was hosted by Reaching the Last Mile, a portfolio of global health programmes driven by a commitment of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and The END Fund.

The hosts share a history of working together to combat NTDs through the Reaching the Last Mile Fund (RLMF). Administered by the END Fund, RLMF is a 10-year, global partnership launched by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, together with support from philanthropists, governments and organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Attendees included Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation; Director-General, Expo 2020 Dubai Bureau; Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Ambassador Agada Garba, Ambassador of the Republic of Niger to the UAE.

Bill Gates said: “Niger’s leadership in the fight against a disease that once seemed impossible to defeat has been exemplary. I have deep gratitude to all who contributed to this achievement, including the Nigeriens whose efforts made it an attainable dream. In particular, I want to thank His Highness for his vision in initiating the Reaching the Last Mile Fund, which has brought new technologies and approaches to the NTD sector and supported Niger in reaching the finish line.”

For the elimination of river blindness to be officially certified by WHO, the next step will be for Niger to submit an elimination dossier. If accepted a formal declaration of the elimination of transmission will be made by WHO. The END Fund is currently supporting the Niger national programme in its efforts to compile a comprehensive dossier.

Ellen Agler, CEO of the END Fund, said: “Niger’s achievement is truly inspirational. The country has shown incredible leadership and perseverance through a long and uncharted journey towards river blindness elimination. It has been the END Fund’s privilege to support Niger in arriving at a destination many thought couldn’t be reached.”

NTDs affect more than 1.7 billion people – often those living in under-resourced areas, in remote communities, and without basic services like access to clean water and sanitation.

Significant progress has been made since the landmark 2012 London Declaration on NTDs, which unified partners across sectors, countries and disease communities to push for greater investment and action on NTDs. Today, hundreds of millions of people no longer require treatment for NTDs and with the elimination of river blindness in Niger, 35 countries will have eliminated at least one NTD since 2012.

Niger’s achievement with river blindness demonstrates what is possible with long-term, sustained investments, country ownership of the goal, and effective public-private partnerships. Innovation and new technologies also play a critical part – from applying real-time and highly granular satellite and other geospatial data to better identify vector breeding locations at the village-level, to the pending introduction of new drugs like moxidectin, which in combination with existing drugs could accelerate the elimination of both river blindness and lymphatic filariasis in Africa.

More than half a century ago, vast areas of fertile land were abandoned in West Africa because of a tiny black fly carrying a parasite that causes severe discomfort and eventually leads to onchocerciasis. The disease is the world’s second leading infectious cause of blindness.

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