UAE: Neglected diseases like malaria, polio more neglected due to Covid-19, says top official

CEO of Abu Dhabi-based GLIDE says the world is close to eliminating some infectious diseases



by

Anjana Sankar

Published: Mon 7 Feb 2022, 6:21 PM

Neglected diseases, such as malaria, polio, river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, have become more neglected since the onset of pandemic. But Covid-19 and its death toll has put in sharp relief the importance of global health and early surveillance systems to warn against new pathogens, a top official has said.

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, Simon Bland, CEO of Abu Dhabi-based GLIDE (Global Institute of Disease Elimination), said: “So, has it (Covid-19) disrupted? Has it set back ambitions? Yes, it has. Has it derailed them completely? No, it hasn't. I think it would be fair to say neglected diseases have been more neglected, but not abandoned."

He added: “If the world has lost tens of trillions of dollars through the impact of Covid, then surely we ought to be able to make the case for tens of billions of dollars to build global systems that can eliminate and eradicate these diseases, build systems of surveillance for early warning, and build health systems that are more resilient."

Bland has been heading GLIDE since its formal launch in November 2019. Supported by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, GLIDE is the only organisation in the region that works to eliminate preventable neglected diseases with a special focus on malaria, polio, river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis.

Bland said GLIDE is part of UAE’s long-term vision of playing a crucial role in tackling the last mile of health and eliminating and eradicating diseases.

Speaking about the impact of the pandemic on neglected diseases, Bland said a flip argument is there has never been a better time to argue for disease elimination.

“If you think about Covid now, we have to think about global health. Global health is my health, and my health is your health. And if you ignore the health of people in Pakistan, if you ignore the health of people in Bali and Ghana and Malawi, you are ignoring your own health, and you are ignoring our collective health and lives,” said Bland.

Arguing his case further that Covid-19 and neglected diseases are “unequivocally linked,” Bland said having a resilient global health system allows for an early warning system for pandemics too.

“So, it actually is good for the world because we develop those systems that allow us to sort of red flag the potential emergence of novel pathogens, viruses, bacteria, parasites, etc," he said.

Though several countries in the West had made huge leaps to eradicate infectious diseases and improved lifespans of their population, Bland said Covid-19 reversed all that.

“And, we are seeing an interplay between this new infectious disease and non- communicable diseases as people with underlying lifestyle conditions are far more vulnerable to contracting Covid. But it re-emphasises the point that if the world thinks it can turn its back on river blindness, if the world thinks it can turn its back on polio, the world thinks it can turn its back on malaria, because it doesn't affect us any more. It is short-sighted and it's wrong.”

World is close to eliminating polio

Despite the challenges, Bland said his organisation is pushing the agenda of eliminating neglected diseases.

“We are a small organisation... just two years old, and enjoys the patronage of the likes of His Highness Sheilh Mohamed bin Zayed and the Bill and Melinda Foundation.

“There has been some real successes in the disease elimination field. But we have to keep up the fight. And we have to keep up the argument that these two things are connected,” said Bland.

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He said the fact that Pakistan has brought polio cases to an all-time low last year and the war-torn Yemen has eliminated lymphatic filariasis show that elimination of such diseases is “absolutely doable with patient perseverance.”

“I think we are close... just a few years off. But we must persist,” he said.

With enough funding and innovation, research and development and investment and new ways of approaching new diagnostics and therapies, Bland said the world can be free of neglected diseases.


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