UOC joins WHO's fight against tropical diseases

Mariona Folguera
Darío Codner, a tech innovation expert from Argentina, came to the eHealth Center to develop an app for dengue fever control and prevention

On 30 January we will mark the first ever World NTD Day, an initiative coordinated by organizations from all around the world combining their efforts to tackle and raise awareness of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). The World Health Organization (WHO) has welcomed the initiative and will soon be giving the day its official backing. The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) is taking an active part in this initiative to show, once again, its commitment to world health and to improving the quality of life of the entire population.

According to WHO, neglected tropical diseases include all infectious diseases that thrive "in impoverished regions, particularly in the hot, humid conditions of tropical climates". The organization outlines that they are parasitic diseases transmitted by insects, such as mosquitoes or flies, or spread through contaminated water or soil infested with worm eggs.

NTDs affect more than 1.6 billion people in the world's poorest regions. Today, these 18 diseases, which include dengue fever, rabies, yaws, leprosy or leishmaniasis, are found mostly in the planet's tropical regions, that is, Latin America and Africa, as they have been gradually disappearing from the regions with higher standards of living and hygiene. However, with the constant movement of people and goods around our increasingly globalized world and the present climate crisis, they are starting to return to the developed world. In fact, in response to the increased number of cases detected of one of these diseases, Chagas' disease, in December 2018, the Government of Catalonia activated the Chagas' disease screening, diagnosis and treatment protocol for pregnant Latin American women and their children.


The UOC's pledge

The UOC is one of the more than 230 partners from around the world who have joined the WHO to back World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day. This is another sign of its commitment to sustainable development and human welfare. In the words of Marta Aymerich, the UOC's Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research and President of the eHealth Center's Executive Board, becoming a collaborative partner is further proof of "the University's commitment to the 2030 Agenda" and strengthens "the covenant signed with WHO in teaching and research on these diseases, and on leishmaniasis in particular".

With its participation in this initiative, the UOC highlights its commitment to research and dissemination of knowledge about these diseases. Between 2016 and 2018, Carme Carrion, a professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences and coordinator of the knowledge area on e-health intervention design and assessment, worked on a project in partnership with WHO to implement a guide targeting health professionals to help them to monitor cutaneous leishmaniasis. As Carrion explained, the joint project's goal was to "take the work on neglected tropical diseases to the most disadvantaged populations, who are often the most affected by these diseases, using the possibilities offered by e-health".

Technology has a key role to play in this process, she continued, because "it enables professionals working in the field to gain access to training without having to travel" and, in terms of research, "it can improve these diseases' diagnosis, treatment and follow-up".

One palpable result of the alliance between WHO and the UOC is the creation of the University's training course on the Clinical Management of Cutaneous Leishmaniasis. Targeting health professionals who work in the field, the programme provides up-to-date information about the disease's epidemiology, monitoring, natural history, diagnosis and treatment strategies.


E-health, a key player in combating NTDs

The UOC's work on neglected diseases is the main reason that led  Darío Codner, a physicist specialized in innovation, science and technology transfer policy and management at the University of Quilmes (Argentina), to visit the University during the week of 27 January. The main purpose of his visit to the eHealth Center was to strengthen contacts between the two institutions and to move forward together in joint research projects, such as developing the dengue fever prevention app.

Codner explained that the idea to create this app came about in response to the "lack of data available to the Argentinian health authorities, as is also the case of other countries in the region". The policy and management expert said that work in e-health can help "solve this problem by designing effective and efficient public policies". Codner is currently working with the Argentinian Government on this app, with the aim of providing "a solution for better decision-making and, in the process, generating relevant information for experts and health authorities to help streamline dengue fever case reporting processes and accelerate decision-making".

Apart from taking part in the development of this app, the Argentinian researcher will also moderate the University's forthcoming Healthy Workshop, which will address knowledge generation and transfer in Argentina and the challenges facing public health policies.

Starting in 2020, a year WHO considers decisive for the work to combat these diseases, more financial and material resources will be devoted to research and prevention, with the ultimate goal of eradicating them. This initiative will be shared on social media using the hashtag #BeatNTDs. During this year, WHO will also announce new objectives for guiding progress until 2030 and urges leaders to make political and financial resources available to help win the fight against these diseases, with actions that can be posted on this portal

E-health will play an essential role in this process. Accordingly, the UOC will make all of its e-health resources available to WHO, channelling them through the eHealth Center. The hope, as Aymerich said, is "to reverse the current situation surrounding NTDs, so that we no longer need to call diseases for which there are viable solutions 'neglected'".