Remarks by Administrator Gayle Smith at the Neglected Tropical Diseases Ten Year Celebration

Friday, September 30, 2016
Remarks by Administrator Gayle Smith at the Neglected Tropical Diseases Ten Year Celebration
Mike Olliver

Those who know me know that I usually speak with great force. Now I’m going to sound like I’m on late night radio.

Thank you Raj and for everything you and Devex do. And I think we may need to change the acronym here because I don’t think that these things are neglected, if you look at who we have in the room.

So let me just say, and if I break it out into spasms of coughing, just bear with me – it’ll be dramatic – and I feel a lot better than it sounds.

But I really wanted to be here tonight, and that’s for a number of reasons. I wanted to be here because I believe that nobody should suffer from a disease they can’t even spell.

It’s because as USAID’s Administrator who became Administrator in the last year, I wanted to swoop in and take the credit.

But quite sincerely, it is because as an American, I want to thank all of you for the amazing, life-changing work that you do, and work that far too often goes unsung. Seriously, and Raj referenced this, last week Nick Kristof wrote a column noting how people are so used to decrying the horrible things happening around the world in the Syria’s and South Sudan’s, that we forget to acknowledge or understand that these tragedies are happening against the backdrop of astounding global progress.

And the people in this room and our partners across the globe, you are the ones who’ve helped paint that backdrop. And you’re still going strong.

So thank you. Thank you to our partners in the pharmaceutical industry, and to partner governments and multilateral organizations like the UK and the World Health Organization. Thank you to our NGO partners, and to our faith-based partners like Monsignor Charles, who joins us here tonight from the Vatican.

Thank you to our implementing partners, and to the men and women of the U.S. Government. And most of all, thank you to those of you who work to fight these diseases in country, day after day.

And can I just ask if everybody who works on this in the field, and with the people, whether it’s a program manager, an NGO, or whatever, could you stand up? And can we give our frontline fighters a round of applause?

Now, I think we all know we’ve come a long way together. But I think to understand how far we’ve come, we need to go back.

So let’s go back ten years. It’s 2006. You might be wearing your pair of crocs and talking on your flip phone, but all over the world, people are suffering from ailments caused by parasites or bacterial infections. Things like trachoma, a leading cause of blindness, or lymphatic filariasis – it’s good right? – a painful and disfiguring mosquito-borne illness.

Blind beggars walk the streets with little hope they’ll be afforded the dignity they deserve. Kids infected with hookworms miss too much school, closing the door to a better future. Those with chronic snail fever become more likely to get cancer, or contract HIV.  

And these are treatable, preventable conditions.

So hundreds of millions of people were plagued with chronic pain, stunting, malnutrition, disability, and other woes not because we had no solutions, but because these were diseases the world forgot. These were people the world forgot.  

Until you all came along. You joined with other scientists and advocates to call on the U.S. government to neglect these diseases no longer. You recognized that this kind of suffering isn’t an unavoidable symptom of extreme poverty; it perpetuates poverty by keeping people down. You demanded that we remember, and that we seize the opportunity in front of us.

And fortunately, there were some visionaries in Congress who listened. Visionaries like Senator Patrick Leahy, who we are honoring tonight for his outstanding leadership in the global fight against neglected tropical diseases. And like Senator Wicker and Senator Coons, and Congressman Crenshaw and Congressman Meeks, who co-chair the Malaria and NTD caucuses on Capitol Hill. Thanks to these leaders and many of their colleagues, as well as President Bush’s Administration, the U.S. Government was able to launch – with a modest $15 million sum – an effort to fight these diseases for the first time.

And today, we’re in a very different place than we were a decade ago. I don’t mean to suggest that the fight is over. Quite the contrary. The hard truth is that a billion people still suffer from these terrible infections. That’s one out of every seven people. And their suffering doesn’t stop with the symptoms of their disease. They also suffer the indignity of stigmatization and isolation. And the opportunity costs of school days missed, and jobs not offered.

So it’s clear we still have a lot of work to do, but here’s the good news: we can make NTDs a thing of the past. We can eliminate these miserable diseases for good.

And, we actually know how to do it. You actually know how to do it. That’s because, working together over the past ten years, we’ve figured out an approach that works.

Letting the evidence guide us, we’ve targeted seven of the most prevalent of these diseases, which together account for 80 percent of the global burden. And since we know the most effective way to tackle NTDs is by getting high quality medicines to communities at risk, we’ve partnered with national health services, other donors, local community organizations, and pharmaceutical companies to organize preventive mass drug distribution campaigns.

And together, we’ve delivered impressive results, supporting the delivery of more than 1.6 billion treatments to 743 million people across 25 countries. Our work has already freed over a hundred million people from the grip of these parasitic worms and bacterial infections – that are displayed outside – that have held communities back for too long.

But now is the time to double down so that we can reach scale. As we move forward, I think there are four things we need to keep in mind, four critical components to our success. And if we want to see a world without NTDs, we’re going to have to do all of them.

The first is to keep building deeper, and more meaningful, cross-sector partnerships. Over the last decade, we’ve been able to get to many more people in many more places because partnerships have expanded our reach. For example, because of our collaboration with the pharmaceutical sector and the World Health Organization, a program that would normally support just 4 or 5 countries now supports 31. And our bilateral partnership with the United Kingdom – which has deepened since the 2012 London Declaration on NTDs – has enabled us to increase access to provide support to more than 40 countries, and put trachoma on track for elimination by 2020.

The second key to long-term success is diversifying the streams of capital that finance our work. That means donor assistance, yes, but it’s also domestic resources and private capital.  

And that’s where the pharmaceutical companies, many of whom are represented here tonight, have stepped up in such a big way.

Over the past decade, pharmaceutical companies have donated more than $11 billion worth of life-changing drugs free of charge to countries where USAID is supporting mass treatment campaigns. Their contribution has helped make NTD investments one of the best buys in public health today. In fact, every dollar USAID invests in the fight against NTDs leverages $26 in donated meds, reducing our treatment cost to just 63 cents per person. That’s what the military calls a force multiplier.
And we need to continue tapping into an additional stream of capital that’s just as important, and that’s political capital. We’ve seen our country partners really take the lead over the past ten years, and it’s been a game-changer. So we need to take every opportunity we can, and every opportunity we have, to thank leaders for their support, and to clearly demonstrate how these efforts are paying off.

The third element of success is thinking local, and remembering that we don’t know everything. A long time ago, I got some really good advice that I have never forgotten. And that was to always reach people where they are and not where you think they should be, whether you’re writing for an audience, or attempting to make change. Reach people where they are. And then you can together get where you need to go – together.

This is a principle we’ve applied in our NTD work. And as we’ve worked with Ministries of Health and Education to manage national programs, we’ve relied on the people communities trust the most. Schoolteachers, village heads, and other local leaders are making sure we reach those most at risk.

Our challenge now is to integrate our work on NTDs into our efforts in other sectors, like in water and education. That way we can strengthen and equip communities to take on all sorts of public health and development challenges in the long run. And their children will be healthier and better educated, their businesses will be more likely to thrive, and they’ll have the systems in place needed to respond to emergency health shocks and threats.

And the fourth element is sustained investment over time. We can’t achieve transformative progress unless we keep at it. Over a period of ten years, we’ve treated, and monitored, and made adjustments when we needed to. We’ve helped build and maintain national programs. And we didn’t cut the cord and call it a success as soon as we saw a sign of progress. We kept at it.

And today, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico have defeated river blindness. That’s because those countries and their partners put in the time to do the surveillance and to maintain a dedicated treatment program. And they kept it going over time. And just this week, Guatemala joined them to become the fourth country in the Americas free of this disease – 100 years after it was first reported. And I believe Guatemala’s Minister of Health is here with us to celebrate tonight.

So our collective challenge on this front is simple. We have to keep going. We have to continue to be smart and targeted with our limited resources, to be driven by the data, to build local capacity and expand our community of partners and investors. We have to accelerate our progress.

And that’s why USAID is proud to launch the next generation of partnerships to help us reach the World Health Organization’s 2020 goals for NTD elimination and control.

Over the next 5 years, USAID will support 1.3 billion treatments – made possible with $6 billion worth of donated drugs. As a result of this support, 400 million more people will live in communities free of lymphatic filariasis – wooh! I did that with a cold, that’s good! – and 186 million will no longer be at risk for trachoma. I want to thank you all for the work you will do to help make that happen.

So tonight, just as we did ten years ago, we have an opportunity in front of us. If we continue to work together, we can end the suffering of a billion people around the world. We can end preventable blindness, reduce disability and disfigurement, and ease chronic pain. We can build healthier, stronger communities and open lasting pathways out of poverty.

I hope that we seize this opportunity together.

And in closing, I would again, like to thank you for all the incredible work that you do, pledge to you that I will do my utmost to make sure that the neglected comes out of the acronym, and that we give more visibility to what Raj rightly described as an extraordinary, extraordinary success.

Thank you very much.