• Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia, is a neglected tropical disease that affects 240 million people worldwide.
  • It is treatable, but medicine is not enough, as the disease is water-bourne and prevalent in communities lacking access to clean water and sanitation.
  • A recent Lancet publication shows that the prevalence of schistosomiasis in school-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa has decreased by almost 60 percent.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has opened the world’s eyes to the devastating impact a single disease can have on every aspect of life. However, other diseases do not receive the same attention, and research into combating them is neglected. This applies to a range of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), one of which is schistosomiasis: 240 million people suffer from this, with 200,000 dying each year. Together with our partners, we at Merck want to eliminate this disease once and for all – and the latest data shows that it is possible to do so.

Schistosomiasis is a water-borne disease caused by parasitic worms. By swimming or washing in contaminated water, people can contract the worm larvae, which then infest their internal organs. Children are particularly vulnerable to infection. They can suffer impaired growth, develop learning difficulties, and may suffer from long-term chronic conditions later in life. The disease can ultimately lead to death.

While people suffer from schistosomiasis globally, it is estimated that at least 90 percent of those requiring treatment live in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is prevalent in communities where access to safe drinking water and sanitation is inadequate or non-existent. Providing medicine is therefore essential, but not enough – which is why we’re looking at the whole picture.

Together against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)

Merck has been committed to the fight against schistosomiasis for 14 years now. In partnership with a range of other organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), we have set ourselves the goal of fully eliminating this disease. By doing so, we are contributing to the targets formulated by the WHO in its new roadmap for neglected tropical diseases, launched this year.

It sets ambitious elimination and eradication targets for many NTDs by 2030. If we’re to achieve the objectives set out by the roadmap and the Sustainable Development Goals, something needs to change. The roadmap is a clear call to action – success is possible, but only if we take collaborative action and focus our work across a range of different areas.

Eliminating schistosomiasis

So, what’s the best way to beat schistosomiasis? Based on insights from experts, we have opted for a comprehensive approach including treatment, health education, and WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene). We also conduct research for new medicines and diagnostics, and we are finalizing the development of a new pediatric medicine for pre-schoolers. Since 2007, we’ve delivered 1.5 billion tablets to the WHO, treating no fewer than 600 million school-age children infected with schistosomiasis.

To deliver treatments to those in need, we are engaged in partnerships with leading institutions such as WHO, like-minded organizations and governments. These long-standing partnerships can support and drive sustainable disease elimination in affected communities and have proven very successful – and we now also have the data to prove it.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

The Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute recently published an article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases on schistosomiasis in school-aged children in sub-Saharan Africa. The data collected from 2000-2019 shows that estimated prevalence in the region decreased by nearly 60 percent in sub-Saharan Africa in that timeframe. The Institute notes that “The decrease in schistosomiasis prevalence is related to the scaling up of preventive chemotherapy over the past 10 years, as well as factors such as economic and social development on the African continent including greater access to clean water and sanitation.”

The road ahead

While the results indicated by the data are promising, there’s still some way to go. Partnerships are at the heart of all attempts to tackle neglected tropical diseases, and of course the same holds true for schistosomiasis. We are committed to continuing the fight against schistosomiasis together with our partners. Our commitment is also an integral part of our company’s sustainability strategy and supports one of the three goals we have set ourselves: achieving human progress for more than one billion people through sustainable science and technology by 2030.

For us, sustainable entrepreneurship and profitable growth go hand in hand. We can only ensure our own future success by also creating lasting value for society. I firmly believe that a world without schistosomiasis is possible and we will do our part to work towards its elimination.