We have Bono and Brad…Who is the Celebrity Face of Neglected Tropical Diseases?

International Trachoma Initiative

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few decades, chances are you have heard of HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and other, for lack of a better word, “popular” diseases, that tend to get a lot of attention. Whether you have been to a U2 concert where the band’s lead singer, Bono, advocates for support of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa or have seen the star studded ads for the ONE campaign, or have been stopped in the mall by M.A.C. cosmetics to “unite against AIDS”, it is evident that celebrities, media, and donors have rallied for the cause. In fact, some research shows that donor contributions have quadrupled since the early 1990’s. This unprecedented amount of attention has been invaluable to raising funds, dispelling the stigma of AIDS and contributing to the prevention and treatment of this high profile disease.

But what about the diseases many of us have never heard of? Have you been to a fancy benefit lately to support lymphatic filariasis or trachoma? How many celebrity designed t-shirts have you seen at upscale boutiques to support hookwork infection or ectoparasitic infections like scabies? Have you seen many famous people using their celebrity to advocate for onchocerciasis on the red carpet?

There is a category for diseases of this kind in Global Health circles, called Neglected Tropical Diseases or NTDs. These conditions are the highest contributors to the overall burden of disease, despite the fact that they are not as high in mortality as some other diseases. Instead, the poorest people in the world suffer from NTDs and live with the debilitating conditions. Since NTDs are largely co-endemic, meaning they often occur simultaneously in one person, inhabitants of many poverty stricken nations often suffer from 4-5 types of these types of ailments at one time. The picture above shows an eyelid infected with Trachoma, which is a slow progressing and painful infectious bacterial disease of the eye leading to irreversible blindness. Often transmitted by flies, repeated infections can cause eyelashes to turn inward and scratch the cornea. For more information specifically on Trachoma, visit: http://www.trachoma.org/core/sub.php?cat=trachoma&id=faq. This is just a preview of the horrific nature of some of these diseases. For more information please visit The Neglected Tropical Disease coalition at:  http://neglectedtropicaldiseases.org/.

Disturbing and unpleasant? Yes. However, the devastation of HIV/AIDS often paints just as desperate a picture and we have seen a tremendous amount of commendable celebrity humanitarianism for this “popular” disease. The good news? NTDs are amenable to control methods such as mass drug administration and eye surgeries to provide relief to those living with these conditions and a concentrated effort can effectively improve quality of life and in some cases eradication.

So, the answer to the question posed in the title? NTDs do, in fact, have a celebrity face and it’s that of Alyssa Milano. The point is, I don’t think Ms. Milano’s representation is wide spread knowledge, and these diseases deserve all the attention we can afford to give them. Celebrities do a great job of raising awareness for a cause, so let’s hope we see NTDs on the their radar in the near future, sharing some of the spotlight.

By: Erin Lieber

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