Can large scale disease control programs be sustained?

Roll Bank Malaria (RBM) was launched in 1998, but actual scale up to universal coverage is only happening in 2010. By Comparison, the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) took off in 1996 and has been scaled up for several years in all but a few of its endemic countries. Granted, APOC has a relatively smaller target area, but it now regularly reaches over 127,000 African villages with annual doses of ivermectin.

Both programs have in common the need to sustain their scaled up for many years into the foreseeable future if disease elimination is to be achieved.

This need for a long term perspective causes concern when one reads about a threat to continued funding for APOC’s Borno State, Nigeria project, and raises speculation whether malaria efforts may face the same threat a few years down the line.

buea4sm.jpgAPOC started with a very clear vision of sustainability. APOC, a government entity (state, province, district, or country) and a non-governmental development agency (NGDO) would enter into a financial and programmatic 5-year partnership to establish community directed treatment with ivermectin (CDTI – see photo of CDTI in Cameroon at right). APOC’s financial contribution would be largest in the first year, when the overall budget would be largest because of start up costs.

Over time, program costs were to reduce, as would costs per person treated because of economies of scale. APOC’s share of the budget would decrease relative to that of the government partner, though the overall budget to maintain the program into the future was expected to be smaller and more manageable to the government partner with some continued support from the NGDO.

Free supplies of ivermectin from the Mectizan Donation Program would continue as long as there was need, but by the sixth year of operation, it was hoped that countries could sustain their own CDTI efforts. Apparently this has not been easy.

Evidence of problems with Borno’s CDTI project surfaced in 2007 at a meeting of APOC’s Technical Consultative Committee where the following report was shared. “Borno has maintained a good geographic and therapeutic coverage. However, the project has the following challenges:

  • Non-release of funds by state and LGAs
  • Inadequate number of FLHF staff
  • Selection and training of more CDDs
  • Obtaining funds from the government

IRIN now reports that after 11 years of operation “The (Borno State) government was supposed to provide counterpart funds to run the river blindness programme, but it has not done so, (according to) Borno State’s onchocerciasis coordinator Galadima.” Hellen Keller International (HKI) is Borno’s NGDO partner for CDTI and has been trying to make up the slack.

Unfortunately “HKI funding has been hit by the global recession, says (a representative). ‘Since the recession our donors have turned their attention elsewhere with little consideration for Africa and this affects the volume of funds for intervention projects like the onchocerciasis.’

Project staff complained to IRIN that, “We have been crippled financially due to lack of state counterpart funding. We sometimes find it hard to fuel our vehicles and go for supervision in the affected communities.”

There were hopes that another four years of government funding would put Borno within reach of elimination goals, but project staff lament that, “If the project stops at this stage, the effects will be devastating. It will turn the tide of the success we have achieved which will be quite disastrous.”

Let’s move this scenario forward to 2015 and change the disease to malaria. Let’s assume that talk of funding ceilings by donors has become a pressing reality and countries need to contribute more to sustain malaria interventions and achieve elimination. Let’s hope we don’t wind up again like malaria control did in the 1950s and ‘60s – eliminating the programs, not the disease.

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ps – The IRIN article does have some potential technical problems. It referred to the CDTI as a program to create ‘immunity’  to onchocerciasis, whereas ivermectin actually is a drug to kill the microfilaria of the parasite and keep infection at a low level until such time as adult worms die and transmission in the community stops. There is also concern about the figure of $18 per person treated. Normally at this advanced stage of the program we should be talking in terms of cents, not dollars. These technical problems with the article do not detract from its serious financial message.

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