Empowering Women Through the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases

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This guest blog post was written by the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases staff.

According to the new maternal mortality estimates recently published in the Lancet, 342,900 women die annually while pregnant or from childbirth. This is a dramatic improvement over numbers released in 1980, but is still unacceptably high and must be addressed. Because of the inextricable link between maternal health and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), reducing the number of women suffering from hookworm and schistosomiasis for instance, will also greatly improve global maternal health—and the woman’s overall health and well being.

According to a paper written by Dr. Peter Hotez, Distinguished Research Professor, Chair of his Department at George Washington University, and President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, titled “Empowering Women and Improving Female Reproductive Health through the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases,” one of the greatest risks to a pregnancy is anemia, a decrease in red blood cells caused by a lack of iron. Anemia during pregnancy can result in low birth weight, infection, miscarriage, or the death of the mother. It is estimated that 20% of maternal deaths in Africa can be attributed to anemia. One of the major causes of anemia is hookworm, an intestinal worm which infects an estimated 576 million people worldwide. That includes 44 million pregnant women worldwide and up to one-third of the pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa. In one study in Nepal, hookworm was found responsible for 54% of anemia during pregnancy. By feeding on the blood of the host, the hookworm also robs the fetus of dearly needed iron and other nutrients. By treating this parasite, countless cases of maternal anemia could be avoided, leading to decreased maternal mortality and healthier children.

Another major cause of anemia is schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia. This is a parasite, which infects over 207 million people worldwide, is endemic in the water supplies of impoverished areas, especially in Africa which, if untreated, can lead to cancer and organ failure. Schistosomiasis is especially dangerous because the eggs of the parasite can be deposited in the placenta, further complicating pregnancy.

The good news is that there are proven, cost-efficient, and effective solutions for these diseases. Hookworm can be treated with Albendazole, which also treats other intestinal worms, and schistosomiasis can be treated by a single dose of Praziquantel. Both of those drugs are donated by drug companies or made available for sale at discounted prices. The inclusion of these drugs in antenatal care packages has proven to be successful at avoiding anemia and saving lives. By treating NTDs, we can stop many cases of entirely preventable maternal deaths and treat some of the most destructive diseases facing humanity in one fell swoop.

Visit the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases website to learn more about their work–and take a look at their blog, End the Neglect.