04/17/2014 10:05 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

A Fresh Wind for Realizing Human Potential

Are there any of us who don't yearn to reach our full potential? Very likely not, yet more than a billion people worldwide -- including 800 million children -- are denied the opportunity to realize their potential by parasitic worms that live in the intestines.

Intestinal worms may sound unpleasant -- and they are -- but last week in Paris, several major philanthropies and pharmaceutical companies came together with governments and non-profit organizations in an exciting partnership to get rid of these nasty creatures and unleash human potential.

Intestinal worms -- which scientists call soil-transmitted helminths or STH -- are actually a group of three types of worms: roundworms and whipworms, whose eggs are swallowed through contact with dirty hands, and hookworms that burrow through the bare skin of soiled feet. The adult worms can cause intestinal obstruction, a life-threatening emergency. They also rob the body of blood and nutrients, leading to anemia, stunted growth and impaired cognitive development. Without treatment, parents and teachers watch helplessly as children struggle to play with others or become too weak to learn. For people in the poorest communities of the world, STH is a huge drain on economic productivity and human development.

Thirteen years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for a comprehensive approach to combat STH -- treating all at-risk children with deworming medication once or twice per year, as well as preventing reinfection with worms through access to clean water, sanitation, and effective hygiene education (WASH). Until recently, progress was relatively slow. Not enough drugs were available, resources to deliver them were inadequate and a comprehensive approach to effectively harmonize the available resources was still gaining traction.

In 2012, however, as part of the London Declaration to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline announced the donation of safe and effective deworming drugs sufficient to reach all school-age children. Other donors, including the US Agency for International Development and the UK Department for International Development, announced substantial financial investments. The STH community began to feel the breezes of hope and possibility. Then in Paris, partners from the education, health, nutrition, WASH, philanthropy, and finance sectors announced new commitments of $120 million dollars to combat STH. They include the Children's Investment Fund Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dubai Cares, the Global Partnership for Education, Mundo Sano, Vitamin Angels, WaterAid, The World Bank, and the World Food Program. In the words of poet Charles Bukowski, the Paris announcement -- and the pledge to work together -- comes as a "fresh wild wind blowing" that has energized the entire field of STH control.

What does this fresh, wild wind bring? In a nutshell, new commitments and a renewed spirit of cooperation. WHO has announced bold targets for eliminating or controlling some 17 NTDs by 2020. As the NTD that is most widely distributed, affects the most people, and contributes the greatest to lost potential, STH control can benefit most from enhanced collaboration and integration with other NTD programs, including schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, and trachoma.

STH, because it is so widespread and pervasive, will require cohesiveness among these diverse partners. A report released at the Paris meeting, Delivering on Promises and Driving Progress: The Second Report on Uniting to Combat NTDs, describes how the partnership will work together to define objectives, clarify roles for all sectors, and ensure that these substantial investments are leveraged effectively to derive maximum value for society. Ultimate success will require galvanizing the commitment of even more partners and mobilizing additional resources.

The effects of STH are seen in every aspect of human development -- through the lenses of public health, nutrition, education, human rights, gender equity, and economic development. Given the magnitude and complexity of the challenge, each of these perspectives is not only welcome, but also necessary. What they all share is the goal of enabling children to reach their full human potential. Theologian Wendy Farley, who has studied and written extensively on suffering, points out that the suffering of unrealized potential is among the most tragic. The vision and generosity expressed through these new and ongoing contributions to STH control, coupled with the fresh wind of collaboration, engagement across sectors, and sustained good will, offer a tremendous opportunity to enhance human potential on a massive scale. We must ride this wind now to deliver on its extraordinary promise.


David Addiss MD, MPH is Director of Children Without Worms.
David Addiss, MD, MPH is a medical epidemiologist and the Director of Children Without Worms (CWW), based at the Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, Georgia.