Abu Dhabi: An Abu Dhabi-led programme has treated a total of 117.9 million individuals across the world against polio and Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).
Initiated by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the Reaching the Last Mile (RLM) Initiative has also trained more than 715,000 health workers, and administered 523.5 million immunisations and medications, in an effort to end preventable diseases that affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.
All at risk
“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that if we can’t reach the most vulnerable, all of us are at risk. The last mile is about ensuring equity in access to quality health care for all, including the most difficult-to-reach and neglected populations. Inequality in global health is as serious as any disease. Without interventions that reach the most vulnerable, it will be impossible to eliminate deadly and debilitating illnesses,” said Nassar Al Mubarak, senior director at the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, who oversees the RLM Initiative. “This approach is core to Sheikh Mohamed’s belief that no one should suffer from a preventable disease, and that everyone should have the chance to live a healthy, dignified life,” Al Mubarak added.
Although it is spearheaded by Sheikh Mohamed, the RLM Initiative does not work alone. Instead, it has roped in more than 30 partner organisations and companies, and this collaboration was highlighted at a recent Majlis Mohamed Bin Zayed virtual Ramadan session.
The RLM Initiative enjoyed a successful track record in the lead-up to the pandemic — and the accomplishments continued despite the difficulties of the global outbreak, Al Mubarak said. “The spread of COVID-19 may have slowed down the teams working on the initiative’s polio vaccination campaign after inoculations were paused in March in response to the pandemic, but they quickly bounced back. The Emirates Polio Campaign was the first polio programme to restart, relaunching vaccination efforts in July last year. Active since 2014 and focusing on Pakistan, the Emirates Polio Campaign has delivered 483 million vaccines to 86 million children,” Al Mubarak said.
This programme is integral: the polio virus infected hundreds of thousands of people each year in the 1980s, leading to devastating cases of paralysis in even young children. Following numerous eradication attempts and national campaigns, the virus now remains endemic only in two countries — Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet, 200,000 new cases of polio could develop every year, within just a decade, if the polio virus is not eliminated from these last vestiges of its existence, public health experts have warned.
“The RLM Initiative is also continuing to make strides in eliminating NTDs. Its $100-million (Dh3.67 million) fund, launched in 2017, has been active in Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Yemen, targeting two diseases: river blindness and lymphatic filariasis (LF). The programme treated 11 million people in 2020 alone, bringing the total tally to 31.9 million beneficiaries,” Al Mubarak said.
Furthermore, health systems supported by the RLM Initiative also played a significant role in leading the response to COVID-19 in many countries. Organisations supported by RLM have led the charge in delivering pandemic-related assistance to developing countries, including PPE, vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments. In the field, health workers trained and supported by RLM programmes have also been essential to the COVID-19 response.
Al Mubarak said that a key attribute of RLM is its commitment to working creatively with partners to meet and overcome health care challenges around the world. “Monitoring pharmaceutical developments in the treatment of NTDs, it is partnering with Medicines Development for Global Health to bring medication to populations that are difficult to reach consistently. It is also keeping a close watch on a new triple drug therapy for treating several NTDs, which has been piloted in the Pacific Islands Region,” Al Mubarak said.
Innovation is a key element in RLM’s work in preventive health care. Examples include its partnership with Planet — the leading provider of global, daily satellite imagery and insights to utilise geospatial mapping technology for the support of disease mapping in difficult to reach geographies, and the application of a new platform called HELP that uses geospatial data to combat river blindness in Senegal and Mali. RLM has also provided seed financing to launch ‘Forecasting Healthy Futures with Malaria No More’ alongside technology partners IBM and Tableau, for an initiative that uses weather-related data to inform policies and programmes to end malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases, which is crucial because the impact of “climate change could see these diseases spreading to new regions.
For the past two years, RLM has supported MIT Solve’s Global Health Challenge, a platform for innovators from around the world to submit solutions to the world’s toughest public health problems, by funding a prize for solutions that address disease elimination and strengthening health systems. In 2019, the ‘Innovating Together for Healthy Cities Prize’ funded FairCap Clean Water, a low-cost water filtration solution that is inserted in plastic bottles to provide immediate access to clean water and reduce the risk of waterborne infectious diseases.
Last year, the ‘Health Workforce Innovation Prize’ funded Ubenwa, an AI-based solution for assessing newborn crying to reduce infant mortality. “RLM continues to explore innovations that can accelerate the pace of disease elimination, support health workers, and strengthen health systems, including using drones for the delivery of medicine and supplies and the use of solar energy to better serve remote areas,” Al Mubarak said.
Core to the RLM’s approach is identifying new financing mechanisms, investable projects, and funding partnerships. The initiative recognises that traditional sources of funding for global health will not be able to meet the financial gap that exists in this space, and that novel forms of generating funding are needed. An example is the Reach Campaign, which is working with like-minded private sector partners in the UAE to raise money and awareness around NTDs.
“RLM’s ultimate goal is to advance equity in global health, with a clear vision for a more inclusive, stable and resilient world. It is striving to achieve this by building resilient health systems, working to eliminate preventable infectious diseases that affect the world’s most marginalised communities, and advocating for resources and attention to be directed towards neglected diseases and populations,” Al Mubarak added.
A final session of the Majlis Mohamed Bin Zayed Ramadan series will air on May 10.