"We cannot wall ourselves off from the world and hope for the best, nor ignore the public health challenges beyond our borders."
President Obama has started an ambitious global health initiative that will deliver urgently needed medicine and preventative care to hundreds of millions of people in poor countries. Included in the plan are efforts to devote resources to "neglected tropical diseases," afflictions like hookworm infections, river blindness and elephantiasis that many think have gone the way of smallpox, but which still make up the most common ailments among the world’s bottom billion.
When we talk about these diseases, we tend to think of distant places like West Africa and South Asia. As we develop the plan, however, it’s crucial that we remember that they plague communities much closer to home as well.
Just off the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean islands popular with American vacationers live millions who suffer from neglected tropical diseases. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, more than 600,000 people are infected with lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic infection also known as elephantiasis for the profound disfigurement it produces in the limbs and genitals. In the Dominican Republic, 250,000 people are infected with the blood flukes that cause schistosomiasis, and more than a million in the region have hookworms. Intestinal worms are also common in Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada, where they cause chronic anemia, as well as stunted growth and impaired intellectual development in children.