Posts or Comments 03 July 2022

Elimination &Health Systems &NTDs &Polio &Surveillance &Trachoma Bill Brieger | 29 May 2022 06:00 am

When is Disease Elimination not Elimination?

A May 28th press release from the World Health Organization states that, “Togo eliminates trachoma as a public health problem.” The article explains that …

Validation of trachoma elimination as a public health problem in Togo was based on evidence. Several population-based trachoma surveys were conducted starting from 2006 to 2017. The 2017 survey using WHO recommended methodology found that the prevalence of key indicators was below the WHO trachoma elimination threshold. There was also evidence that Togo’s health system is able to identify and treat new cases of late complications of trachoma.

This raises the question, is Trachoma gone from Togo or does trachoma continue to exist at some low level whereby, as WHO notes, Togo has joined, “12 other countries that have been validated by WHO for having eliminated trachoma as a public health problem.”

This description of disease elimination contrasts sharply with the global concerns when “health authorities in Malawi have declared an outbreak of wild poliovirus type 1 after a case was detected in a young child in the capital Lilongwe. This is the first case of wild poliovirus in Africa in more than five years.” Wild polio virus had been declared eliminated in Africa, and just one case in one country grabs international attention.

Would one case of trachoma tomorrow receive the same concern in Togo? Apparently not according to the WHO definition, “Elimination of trachoma as a public health problem is defined as: (i) a prevalence of trachomatous trichiasis (TT) “unknown to the health system” of < 1 case per 1000 total population; and (ii) a prevalence of trachomatous inflammation-follicular (TF) in children aged 1–9 years of < 5%, in each formerly endemic district.”

So, while no cases of smallpox, guinea worm or polio would be tolerated after elimination has been declared, parents of a child who develops trachoma in Togo tomorrow would be told that your child’s case is only 1 in a 1000 and not of concern to public health. The caveat is though that “the health system (must be) able to identify and manage incident TT cases.” Presumably, if such management capacity does not exist, the disease in question could spread and elimination would be eliminated.

Another Neglected Tropical Disease, Lymphatic Filariasis, faces the same challenge in terms of elimination status. WHO explained in its guidance that, “In 1997, the 50th World Health Assembly resolved to eliminate LF as a public-health problem (resolution WHA50.29). In response, WHO proposed a comprehensive strategy for achieving the elimination goal that included interrupting transmission in endemic communities and implementing interventions to prevent and manage LF-associated disabilities The LF guidance stresses “Effective monitoring, epidemiological assessment and evaluation are necessary to achieve the aim of interrupting LF transmission,” or in a word Surveillance. There is clear concern for “absence of transmission” and worries about “recrudescence.”

While polio has a vaccine and guinea worm relies on providing safe community water, LF and Trachoma elimination depends on mass drug administration (MDA) at planned intervals until such time as transmission is reduced. All require a strong health system to implement, but the challenges of maintaining MDAs until such time as elimination has been validated is somewhat more challenging. In this context the communication is extremely important. Just because WHO validates the elimination of a disease as a public health problem, does not give policy makers license to ignore that disease. Advocacy is continually needed such that even after apparent elimination, neglected diseases will not be forgotten and health systems themselves not neglected.

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