The UOC underlines its commitment to the WHO with an agreement to assess an app for monitoring neglected tropical diseases


Image: Adrienn (Pexels)

Santiago Campillo
"Sometimes the effort needed to eradicate these diseases isn't all that great. This is one of the challenges set in the UN's 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goal for good health and well-being. To put it simply, neglecting diseases makes us poorer."

The third World Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) Day is taking place soon. These diseases affect over a billion people worldwide, although they continue to be almost unheard of in Western societies. This year, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya has reaffirmed its commitment to supporting efforts to tackle this issue, signing an agreement with the World Health Organization to assess its Skin NTDs app using criteria developed by UOC researchers Carme Carrion and Marta Aymerich from the eHealth Lab and Noemí Robles from the eHealth Center.


The UOC has been committed from the start to efforts to combat NTDs

The UOC has been involved in the WHO's effort to combat neglected tropical diseases from the first. A worldwide initiative coordinated by several organizations to raise awareness of and tackle NTDs has been marked each 30 January since 2020. As one of 230 worldwide partners in the event, the UOC has been involved in actions that demonstrate its commitment to training and research on these diseases.

Thanks to this partnership, in 2021 the UOC issued eight recommendations to improve apps for neglected tropical diseases, based on a publication by UOC researchers Carme Carrion and Marta Aymerich from the eHealth Lab and Noemí Robles, from the eHealth Center, together with the WHO's José Antonio Ruiz Postigo, and Oriol Solà de Morales from the Health Innovation Technology Transfer Foundation, in which they examined existing applications in use and their weaknesses.

Marta Aymerich, President of the eHealth Center's Executive Board and the UOC's vice president for Strategic Planning and Research, explained the University's involvement in the initiative: "We have been involved since the first year, 2020, carrying out research, training and awareness-raising activities, fostering research into diseases whose common factor, sadly, is that they're neglected."

"Their profile needs to be raised, which is why we've worked for years with the WHO's tropical diseases unit, carrying out training and research into some of them, particularly leishmaniasis." From 2016 to 2018, associate dean for research and member of the Faculty of Health Sciences and researcher at the eHealth Center, Carme Carrion, worked on a project to introduce a guide for health professionals to help them monitor cutaneous leishmaniasis. This year, the UOC has taken its commitment to the WHO to another level.


Evaluating the Skin NTDs app

"We're going to be evaluating the WHO's Skin NTDs app as it is used in the field in four countries: Ghana, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Papua New Guinea", Carme Carrion explained. The aim is to examine how the application is being used, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how the professionals who use it think it can be improved."

This action is part of an ongoing partnership working on digital health and its use in mid- and low-income countries. "In the medium term we'll be working on the strategy for implementing the app and assessing its impact. Our research into health applications, and in particular validating and evaluating them, enables bodies like the WHO to benefit from our knowledge to develop and implement more robust tools that help reduce global health inequalities."

The aim of the joint project is "to ensure, through the use of digital health, that measures to tackle neglected tropical diseases reach the most disadvantaged communities, which are often the most severely affected". Neglected tropical diseases are a major global issue, currently affecting millions of people, especially in mid- and low-income countries, but also in some rich countries. Despite this, very little is heard about NTDs in our society. Progress on the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases has been set back over the last two years as they have been neglected even further, on not being prioritized due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


The global impact of NTDs

What are neglected tropical diseases? "They are infectious illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms  found in mid- and low-income tropical areas of Africa, Asia and America," explained Marta Aymerich. "The WHO has drawn up a list of 20 such diseases and, sadly, what they have in common is that as a society we pay them little attention. We don't dedicate professional or pharmaceutical resources to them. We don't carry out enough scientific research or make sufficient effort to tackle poverty, which could eliminate them."

"This neglect [of NTDs] is probably because the people affected are the poorest on the planet", noted Marta Aymerich, "and that's why we don't do enough. When, in fact, we should be doing precisely the opposite. Sometimes the effort needed to eradicate these diseases isn't all that great. Eliminating these epidemics is one of the challenges set in the UN's 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goal for good health and well-being. To put it simply, neglecting diseases makes us poorer."

To raise awareness of these diseases and the need to tackle them, 30 January each year is recognized as World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day (WNTDD). "The goal of WNTDD is to raise awareness about this worldwide healthcare injustice," the vice president clarified. "The UOC wishes to play its part by training health professionals and working with the WHO on research projects with regard to these diseases, as well as helping affected communities through health education."

This work is necessary, and it is an aspect common to most of these diseases, where digital health can make an important contribution, "for example, through the use of mobile phone apps".
As she said, "At the UOC's eHealth Center, which heads the SDG 3 cluster on health and well-being of the International Association of Universities, we're also committed to training health professionals around the globe."


The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health. 

Over 500 researchers and 52 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The University also cultivates online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu #UOC25years

UOC experts

Photograph of Carme Carrion

Carme Carrion Ribas

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences

Expert in: Evaluation of mobile health interventions (apps, sensors, wearables, etc) as regards their effectiveness and efficiency.

Knowledge area: Digital health and evaluating healthcare projects.

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Photograph of Marta Aymerich Martínez

Marta Aymerich Martínez

Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research

Expert in: Translating research findings into clinical and/or public health practice; evaluating research.

Knowledge area: Public health and research policy.

View file