The tropical diseases concerned are a group of 17 parasitic and bacterial infections that are the most common afflictions of the world's poorest people.
They blind, disable and disfigure their victims, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and disease.
Now, American and Australian scientists in a co-authored report, say by overcoming the challenges in tropical disease control the pacific countries can make impressive progress towards health equality.
Presenter: Girish Sawlani
Speaker: Professor Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine institute and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas
HOTEZ: Well you summarised it beautifully actually. These are the most common infections of the world's poor. The one thing we did not expect that we found in the study is that the rates of these neglected tropical diseases in among the poor in the Oceanic region and that includes places like Papua New Guinea, but also among the Aboriginal populations in Australia, is as bad as it is in places like Sub-Saharan Africa or South East Asia. So that there's a hidden burden of disease in your region which is quite concerning.
SAWLANI: And which countries are most exposed to these parasitic bacterial infections, is this more trans-national or is one country dealing with it with less effectiveness than others?
HOTEZ: Well, the country that has the worst problem just because of its size and its level of poverty and disease is Papua New Guinea. So more than half the population of PNG is affected by hookworm infection, enormous rates of strongyloidiasis, skin infections resulting from scabies, that's leading to secondary streptococcal infection, and heart disease and kidney disease. So that's one of the worst affected. But one of the other disappointing findings was the high rates of infection among Aboriginal populations in Australia itself.
SAWLANI: And have some of these countries experienced any success in dealing with these sorts of infections?
HOTEZ: Well, there's been widespread economic development in most of Australia and where there's economic development, a lot of these infections can melt away. So what has to happen is more aggressive efforts at mass treatments. So what we found is mass treatments using simple low cost or donated drugs was one of the best answers and unfortunately, Papua New Guinea, has not benefited from those mass treatment approaches and neither has many of the Aboriginal populations in Australia. There have been pockets of success. We've seen elimination of lymphatic filariasis and other diseases in some of the smaller islands, but for PNG and among the poorest people in Australia, there's still beset by these diseases.
SAWLANI: Now we call these infections Neglected Tropical Diseases as you mentioned NTD's. Why such terminology?
HOTEZ: Well, we have coined the term around 2004-2005. It may not be the best term out there, but it helps to distinguish it from better known infections, such as HIV/Aids or Tuberculosis, or even Malaria. The point being that these NTDs as a group are the most common infections of people living in extreme poverty and a significant number of the people in Oceania, the 35 million people. In Oceania, a significant number live in extreme poverty, particularly on less than $1 a day and what they do together is they're common, they're chronic, they last the entire lifetime of the individual and they cause an enormous amount of disability.
One of the things we found about these infections and one of the reasons why they're neglected, they tend not to be killer diseases, but rather they disable, and they actually are not only occur in the setting of poverty, what we ly found they actually trap people in poverty. They trap people in poverty, because they make people too sick to go to work everyday, they actually reduce childhood intelligence and cognitive development and physical development and they cause adverse pregnancy outcomes.
SAWLANI: Now beyond what health authorities and governments can do. What can individuals do to better protect themselves and control these diseases?
HOTEZ: Well, we think that one of the things for people living in poverty, living in these endemic areas, they need access to essential medicines for these diseases and I think that's a critical role the Australian government can play through its AusAID. They've not really prioritised neglected tropical diseases as much as they should, but in fact, our findings are suggesting that these are among the most important health problems among the poor in the region. And what's so amazing is it's so easy to do, to make a big difference. We're talking 50 cents a person for a year really moderate costs and investments that could be used. So I think this could be a (word indistinct) for the Australian government working in collaboration with some of the other disease endemic countries.