Op-Ed: A Foreign Policy Solution That Pays Big Economic Benefits
President Biden’s decision to donate 500 million COVID-19 vaccines to other countries by June 2022 is an important step towards restoring the United States’ global position. Perhaps another parallel foreign policy solution could do even more. It’s simple, cost effective, and could improve the health and well-being of billions of people, especially children.
Inexpensive treatments – as little as 50 cents per child – can prevent neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), such as intestinal worms, which are among the most common diseases affecting the world’s poorest and most marginalized people.
New evidence confirms that ensuring widespread access to treatment for NTDs generates clear health and humanitarian gains, while producing remarkably high – and sustained – economic returns for society. As many countries turn inward, the United States should seize the opportunity to expand its support for proven, cost-effective solutions to global health challenges.
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the developing world, infecting hundreds of thousands of people daily and pushing a lot in poverty, more … than 1 billion people – nearly a seventh of the world’s population – continue to suffer from tropical diseases like elephantiasis, trachoma, river blindness and intestinal worms, which cause severe pain, illness and long-term disability.
In fact, the pandemic has exacerbated the damage caused by these diseases by complicating mass treatment efforts, including those based in schools, which have been shut down in many countries for long periods of time.
In children, the impacts of NTDs are particularly acute: infections cause malnutrition, impair intellectual and cognitive development and slow growth. These diseases undermine productivity and growth and hamper progress towards global health and development goals. Still, these illnesses are largely preventable, and most can be treated with a few simple, inexpensive pills.
Compared to the enormous feat required to develop and deliver the COVID-19 vaccine, one would think that governments would see treatment of NTDs as a quick and obvious victory. Yet the opposite is true at the moment.
Growing demands on government budgets due to the pandemic are forcing many to scale back support for NTDs, halting – and potentially even reversing – hard-won progress. The British government, a long-time world leader in foreign aid, recently announced it would reduce 90% of its funding for these diseases as part of the budget cuts caused by the double financial whammy of the pandemic and Brexit.
As a result, millions of people will go untreated and, tragically, many drugs already in the country will be expire on the shelf, lack of funds to distribute them. For the world’s most vulnerable populations, the consequences will be catastrophic.
The United States is already a leader in the treatment of NTDs. He allocated $ 988 million to this program since 2006, helping to provide 2.8 billion treatments worldwide. Now, the Biden administration is expected to encourage other wealthy countries to deepen their investments. This will have significant impacts on long-term social and economic outcomes, enabling a faster and more equitable recovery from the current global pandemic.
Take intestinal worms, which are among the most frequent and treatable NTDs. These worm infections can have lifelong health consequences, including growth retardation, weakness, anemia, and unwanted immunological effects.
Beginning in 1998, Nobel Laureate Michael Kremer and I studied a public health program in Kenya providing treatment for intestinal worms to tens of thousands of schoolchildren. In a randomized controlled trial, we compared schools where treatment was offered with otherwise identical schools where it was not. We have found that treating children against worms 25% reduction in absences from primary school – showing that a simple health intervention had enormous impacts on education.
We then followed a representative sample of these children over 20 to collect information on their income, standard of living and other life outcomes. The results are surprising.
Our new study, released this spring, found that people who received extra deworming in school (and are now in their late 20s and early 30s) reported 13% higher hourly wages and 14 expenses. % higher than those who did not receive treatment. More of them also moved to large urban areas, which offered them better economic opportunities.
These results suggest that the more we invest in processing now, the bigger the dividends later. Generations of children who grow up without being infected with worms can attend more schools and earn higher incomes, ultimately experiencing less poverty and spurring global economic growth.
This return on investment is increasingly recognized by governments. Countries like India, Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Pakistan conduct mass deworming programs that affect hundreds of millions of children every year. However, more than 800 million children remain at risk of parasitic infections by worms.
Despite governments’ commitment to these cost-effective programs, some require external funding and support. We have the evidence to argue for economic benefits and have also developed a new open policy tool help decision-makers understand the costs and benefits of treatment and inform programmatic investments.
Over the past two decades, governments, nonprofits and private donors have made huge progress against intestinal worms and other NTDs, using extremely cheap and cost-effective treatments. As a result, we are closer than ever to defeating these ubiquitous diseases. But we are not there yet.
The United States must step up its efforts to combat these debilitating infections and prevent long-term setbacks in global health and economic systems. Beyond vaccine diplomacy, there is a real opportunity for the Biden administration to fill the critical void in investing in NTDs.
Governments around the world have been sensitized to how diseases, such as COVID-19, affect the health, economy and general well-being of their countries. They have the opportunity to look beyond the pandemic to expand support for affordable treatments that improve hundreds of millions of lives.
Edward Miguel is Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics and Faculty Director of the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley.