Where There Is a Will There Is a Way: A Call on the United Nations to Accelerate Eradication of Yaws

Where There Is a Will There Is a Way: A Call on the United Nations to Accelerate Eradication of Yaws

04.8.2016
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I had the opportunity to make an appeal to the different stakeholders that have a role to play in the eradication of yaws

On 11 July, Where the Roads End, a documentary about the fight against yaws disease was screened at the United Nations headquarters (New York). During a panel discussion following the screening, I had the opportunity to make an appeal to the different stakeholders that have a role to play in the eradication of yaws. I called upon governments, philanthropic organizations and pharmaceutical companies to make azithromycin tablets available free of charge to affected populations so that the world can finally triumph over yaws. Here’s what I shared with them:

A tablet of azithromycin costs US$ 0.17 and most children need one or two to get cured

The documentary Where the roads end captures the ease with which oral azithromycin is administered to children with yaws and its benefits to affected populations in Papua New Guinea and the world. A tablet (500 mg) of azithromycin costs US$ 0.17 and most children need one or two to get cured but it is not readily available in most parts of the world. This case highlights that, in 2016, the so-called “lottery of birth” determines someone’s chances of living a full, dignified life or living in extreme poverty. The persistence of yaws and other diseases that affect impoverished populations and to which a cure exists, is perhaps the most grievous example of this.

Should yaws affect people with purchasing power, it would have been eradicated already

Yaws is a neglected tropical disease included in the group of disabling diseases with cutaneous manifestation. The fact that the people affected do not have the means to finance the treatment, nor the capacity of calling on their governments to provide for it, turn them into neglect and exclude them from the R&D system, which is strongly ruled by the market logic. Should yaws affect people with purchasing power, it would have been eradicated already.

The people affected by the disease develop painful ulcers that might deform the bones and lead to irreversible disabilities. Children suffer recurring ulcers during several years and during that time they don’t go to school, don’t play with other children, don’t do the things children do. Not only is there a human cost to this, but also a heavy social and economic burden that might determine their future: these children lose years of schooling. Thus, yaws might limit their chances of overcoming poverty.

Can we resort to the lack of resources as an excuse to allow the suffering of so many people to continue?

Beyond its severity, the persistence of yaws is also obscene: the disease could be eradicated with only 300 million euros. By mobilising this amount we could place yaws in history books, where it would appear as the second disease ever eradicated from earth, right after smallpox. The treatment with azithromycin is effective, easy to distribute and, above all, very cheap. Can we resort to the lack of resources as an excuse to allow the suffering of so many people to continue? The answer is a resounding no. The amount required to eradicate yaws (300 million euros) is equivalent to the 2.5 percent of the military spending of my country, Spain, which is not at war today.

The forum that gathers us all at the UN this week intends to analyse the first steps towards the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are expected to be a framework for the responsibility of all the stakeholders, thus promoting substantial equity and development around the world. The fulfillment of the SDGs won’t be successful unless we address yaws and other similar neglected diseases. This is part of the mandate assumed by the UN and the countries within it, and must be more than a simple state of intent.

There are diseases for which no cure exists yet; but it is unacceptable for us not to cure those that can be cured.

  • I urge the governments of endemic countries, to look at the needs of their most vulnerable populations, and to ensure that they a core component of their policies and actions;
  • I urge the donor countries, to prioritise the fight against NTDs in the programs of overseas development assistance;
  • I urge the foundations and philanthropic institutions, to contribute to alleviating the pain of the affected children, something that will leverage into general development and wellbeing;
  • I urge the pharmaceutical industry to pay their share of responsibility by donating the drugs required to tackle these diseases, which would stand for a minimal percentage of their revenues.

If someone like me and my team in Lihir has found an easy and non-costly solution to improve those kids' lives suffering yaws‬, how come large international organisations & policy-makers, including UN, can't find the means to boost its implementation?

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