19 Dec 2016

 After over a decade of efforts, Cambodia, Cook Islands, Niue and Vanuatu have eliminated lymphatic filariasis—also known as elephantiasis—as a public health problem. Dr Margaret Chan, World Health Oganization (WHO) Director-General and Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Region, congratulated health ministers from the four countries for this historical achievement during the opening of the sixty-seventh session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific.

"By eliminating this disabling scourge and ensuring that there will be no more new cases in the next generation, these countries have also banished a significant cause of poverty," said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.

"This achievement is the culmination of more than a decade of accelerated efforts of governments, development partners, and donors, supported by WHO. I thank this Region for leading the world in the battle against lymphatic filariasis, and many other threats to health, both new and old," said Dr Chan.

Lymphatic filariasis is a mosquito-borne disease affecting populations in tropical countries. The disease is caused when filarial worms, transmitted to humans through mosquito bites, damage the body's lymphatic system, leading to severe disfigurement, pain, disability and recurrent acute attacks. The damage to the lymphatic system results in swelling and disfigurement of arms, legs or other body parts, resulting in a condition called elephantiasis. These disfigurements, and the stigma associated with them, often cause patients to lose their livelihoods and become psychologically affected.

WHO has validated this important achievement of elimination, with these four countries in the Western Pacific Region and two countries in the Southeast Asia Region joining China and the Republic of Korea as the only countries in the world to eliminate lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem. Nearly 20 other countries and areas in the Western Pacific continue to be endemic for lymphatic filariasis. Many of them are also making progress towards elimination by 2020, following the initiation of a Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis.

The fight against lymphatic filariasis has been a focus for WHO and affected countries for the last 20 years. A global commitment to eliminate lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem was made by Member States at the World Health Assembly in May 1997, encouraged by advances in the development of effective medicines and diagnostic tests.

In response, WHO launched the Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis in 2000, by employing two strategies: stop the spread of infection by annual rounds of mass drug administration (MDA) targeting the entire population at risk, and alleviate the suffering of patients already living with the disease by integrating their care into existing health systems to prevent further morbidity and disability.

Despite diverse geographical, logistic and cultural challenges, all endemic countries in the Western Pacific Region rose to the challenge, initiating national responses including large-scale MDA campaigns. Now, these efforts are paying off as one country after another approach the elimination threshold for lymphatic filariasis.

The remarkable progress being made against lymphatic filariasis in the Region could not have occurred without strong political commitment among endemic countries, the generous donation of preventive medicines by the pharmaceutical companies, the unflagging support of bilateral partners, such as the governments of Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, and assistance from various nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions and philanthropic foundations.

"It's great that the commitment and efforts of countries and partners have resulted in elimination of this disease, and that this achievement has been formally recognized at this year's session of the Regional Committee. Of course even with elimination the job is not over in these four countries. We look forward to their continued efforts to detect and prevent any future return of the disease and to provide care for people experiencing ongoing health problems as a result of earlier infection," said Dr Mark Jacobs, WHO Director for Communicable Diseases in the Western Pacific.

WHO is committed to supporting Member States to rid the Region of diseases of poverty such as lymphatic filariasis and ensure no one is left behind.

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Mr Ruel E. Serrano
Public Information Office
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