Baker Institute Experts: US and Mexico Can Team Up to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 9/29/2015, 10:05 a.m.
Neglected tropical diseases have become widespread in both the United States and Mexico, and the two countries have an opportunity ...

HOUSTON – (Sept. 28, 2015) – Neglected tropical diseases have become widespread in both the United States and Mexico, and the two countries have an opportunity to jointly tackle and control these afflictions, according to tropical-disease and science-policy experts at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The experts -- Dr. Peter Hotez, fellow in disease and poverty; Kirstin Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy; and Jennifer Herricks, postdoctoral fellow in disease and poverty -- are available for media interviews on the topic in conjunction with a high-level summit at the Baker Institute Sept. 29-30. Speakers at the summit include Mitchell Wolfe, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Global Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Mercedes Juan Lopez, the Mexican secretary of health; Texas state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place; and Roberto Tapia Conyer, director-general of the Carlos Slim Foundation.

The experts are building a strong evidence base that neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are now widespread among the poorest people living in the United States, particularly in Texas and other southern states. NTDs are unique poverty-related infections that cause long-term and debilitating effects. While they don’t command the same attention of such higher-profile infections as influenza, NTDs are considered the most common afflictions of the world’s poor and a major reason underlying their ill health.

It is estimated that 12 million Americans, most of them impoverished, live with an NTD, the experts said. These diseases are not household names -- Chagas disease, cysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis and trichomoniasis -- and also include viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, including dengue fever and the West Nile virus.

In Mexico, NTDs are also widespread but not necessarily along its border with the U.S. Instead, NTDs concentrate in Mexico’s poorest southern states such as Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, or in the Mayan villages on the Yucatan Peninsula. Many of the NTDs are the same as those found in the poorest parts of Texas or elsewhere along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

There are opportunities to jointly address the NTDs shared by the U.S. and Mexico, the experts said. “First and foremost, we need to conduct programs to actively determine exactly how widespread these diseases are and who might be at greatest risk,” they wrote.

This year, the Texas legislature passed the first NTD bill in the U.S., which will help to facilitate epidemiological surveillance activities in the state, but similar activities must be conducted across the southern U.S., as well as in Mexico, the experts determined.

“We also need to better understand how NTDs are actually transmitted and how poverty contributes to disease transmission,” they wrote. “Diagnostics and treatments must be made more available and affordable. For instance, less than 1 percent of people living with Chagas disease in either the U.S. or Mexico are diagnosed and treated for their illness. We need programs to make physicians and other health care providers aware of these diseases and how to manage and treat them, while simultaneously shaping policies on disease prevention in poor and vulnerable towns, districts and regions. Finally, more research and development is crucial, as in many cases we do not yet have drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for many NTDs in hand.”

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