October 10, 2012 7:18 pm

A little effort can produce great strides

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Voice for change: John Kufuor, special envoy©AFP

Voice for change: John Kufuor, special envoy

John Kufuor had long been aware of the burden of neglected diseases in Ghana, but it took the visit of a foreign head of state to mobilise his country’s government into action.

From river blindness and buruli ulcer to elephantiasis, the country had plenty of health problems that affected its poorest residents. It harboured one of the largest number of cases of guinea worm outside Sudan, a disease energetically targeted for global eradication by former US president Jimmy Carter through his foundation.

“President Carter had visited before I came to power with a technical group of volunteers who targeted guinea worm eradication,” Mr Kufuor, the former president of Ghana, recalls. “That focused attention.

“During my tenure, he must have visited four or five times, travelling with a group of experts to some of the remotest parts up in the north. He provided leadership, and we got embarrassed remaining in the capital.”

While guinea worm and other diseases were “slow killers” that often escaped attention, he argues: “When the afflicted get relief, they are empowered to work productively. Children can go to school without suffering, to the benefit of the nation.

“In government, the topmost priorities are security and health. If the people are not healthy, they can’t be productive and the economy stalls.”

Although plenty of attention and funding went to other diseases, led by HIV, over the years, he says: “The truth is that these neglected diseases have been there long before the explosion of HIV. The only difference is they attacked the poorest, marginalised people without a voice.

“The fight must be sustained against HIV, but we want to bring alongside the fight against these other diseases. For as little as 50 cents per person a year, we can make a great onslaught.”

He stresses the importance of clean drinking water, and partnerships with non-governmental organisations to help tackle neglected diseases.

He also cites the broader impact of the pioneering introduction of health insurance in place of the previous out-of-pocket healthcare system dubbed “cash and carry” by critics that offered scant support for the poor. “There is still some way to go, but I believe Ghana is really shaping up,” he says.

Now he is bringing his own gravitas as a former president to try to do the same for his peers across Africa and beyond. This year he was appointed as special envoy to the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Mr Kufuor has spent time both travelling in Africa and meeting donors elsewhere to stress the importance of the cause. But how optimistic is he about fresh support for long unfulfilled pledges to boost health investment across the continent?

“Things are beginning to change. The afflicted tended to be some of the poorest, at the margins of society. Now, with governments getting accountable through democratisation, and the opening up of the world through the IT revolution, governments are having to sit up.”

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