How we're crossing borders to beat neglected tropical diseases

By Martins Imhansoloeva

Across the world, the borders between countries can sometimes act as flashpoints for conflict and insecurity.

This can create challenges for those who are fighting against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – a group of 20 conditions that affect more than a billion people around the world.

When borders are closed due to conflict, it can be harder for health workers to monitor how diseases are spreading, and to provide vital medications to people who need them.

Moreover, many NTDs are spread by animals or insects – known as ‘vectors’. These vectors can move easily between countries, infecting and re-infecting populations on either side of these dividing lines.

At Sightsavers, we’re proud to be partnering with GLIDE on a research project that could help to overcome some of these challenges.

On the trail of river blindness

The DISSECT project is focusing on an NTD called river blindness, which causes severe skin irritation and can eventually lead to irreversible blindness. It is looking at how new methods could help to track the spread of this disease in two border regions – Malawi-Mozambique and Ghana-Cote D’Ivoire.

The disease is spread by the blackfly, a species of biting fly that lives by fast-flowing rivers. To monitor the level of river blindness in an area, human ‘flycatchers’ are required to sit by the riverside and catch these flies, which are then sent to a laboratory for testing.

Dominique Catton/Sightsavers

The flycatchers are given medication to prevent them from catching river blindness, but this can still be an unpleasant and time-consuming task. In situations where conflict breaks out, it may be difficult for these flycatchers to continue their work, as they may struggle to reach areas where the disease is spreading.

That’s where our project comes in. Our researchers are testing out fly traps as an easier and less labour-intensive way of catching the flies.

Bringing benefits for communities

The research project will use Esperanza window traps, consisting of a metal or wooden frame holding a sheet of fabric that has been coated in glue.

© Sightsavers/KC Nwakalor

This technique has been tested out in the field before, and in a previous project a set of traps have been able to catch up to 100 flies a day. DISSECT is testing this method out on a larger scale, and we hope to show once and for all that fly traps are a viable alternative to using human flycatchers.

Dominique Catton/Sightsavers

This would help countries across Africa to monitor the spread of river blindness more easily, and would support global efforts to eliminate this disease as a public health problem.

Sightsavers has been involved with NTD work since it was first founded in 1950, and we know that beating a neglected tropical disease can bring many benefits for families and communities. This includes increased productivity, improved school attendance and greater empowerment for women. ​

A model for greater collaboration

In addition to supporting the elimination of river blindness, we are also hoping to make a positive impact in other ways. For instance, our project will involve training up local researchers, and strengthening laboratory capacity across Malawi, Mozambique, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

We are also aiming to encourage greater collaboration between the governments of these four nations. This can provide a model for how other countries can work successfully together to stamp out the scourge of neglected tropical diseases in future.

Most of all, the project is aiming to show that lasting change is possible, even for people living in the world’s fragile border regions. As the global community works to beat neglected tropical diseases, we can’t leave these people behind.

Martins is a trained epidemiologist with expertise in control and elimination of infectious disease in low- and medium-income settings. He is based in Nigeria and works for Sightsavers as a senior research coordinator.