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Neglected Tropical Diseases: How You Can Help

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- For a billion people around the globe, everyday activities like eating, drinking and walking pose a serious health risk.  They lead to serious debilitating diseases that can last a lifetime.

On Tuesday, ABC News’ chief health and medical correspondent, Dr. Richard Besser, hosted a Twitter chat to raise awareness for the seven “neglected tropical diseases” that afflict one in six people globally. 

Non-profit organizations, including End 7, the Carter Center and Helen Keller Institute, as well as hospitals and concerned citizens from all over the world, tweeted out their thoughts on this important topic. 

To learn more about the diseases, including what you can do to help, read on:

What are neglected tropical diseases?

Hookworm, trachoma, elephantiasis, roundworm, whip worm, snail fever and river blindness are the seven parasitic and bacterial infections collectively referred to as the neglected tropical diseases because the parasites and bacteria involved thrive in warm tropical climates.  Though rare in developed, Western countries, they affect the health and safety of more than a billion people globally, half of whom are children.

These diseases usually don’t kill their hosts.  Instead, they leach nutrition from them for years and cause health problems such as malnutrition, blindness and disability.  Because they impact mainly poor, rural people in remote locations, they don’t receive the attention that they should from governments, aid organizations and the international community.

Who is at greatest risk?

The greatest risk factor for contracting one of these diseases is poverty.  Women and children in the areas where the diseases strike face the greatest risk.  Without education and resources to help them understand and prevent infection, poor people cannot break the cycle of transmission.

Poverty-stricken areas typically lack access to clean drinking water and working sanitation.  They often live near flooded farmlands that are breeding grounds for the insects and snails that harbor disease.  They also lack access to basic medical care and may go untreated, even though many of these diseases can be cured quickly with less than 50 cents worth of medication.

How can the neglected tropical diseases be prevented, treated and eliminated for good?

A short course of medication is typically enough to cure most tropical diseases but most experts emphasize prevention as the key to eradication.  Providing shoes, mosquito netting and drinking straws with filters are examples of simple and inexpensive, yet highly effective methods for preventing disease transmission.

Education also is essential.  By helping communities understand the dangers of stagnant water and improper sanitation, experts are hopeful they can greatly reduce transmission.  Already, changing behaviors in some communities have dramatically reduced guinea worm infections.

Why should we care?

The economic and educational impact of these diseases are felt worldwide.  Death rates aren’t high but the effects are disabling.  Disease perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and sickness.  Fighting these diseases is cost-effective and, by investing now, we can realize improvements quickly.

The experts on Besser's Twitter chat said we have the tools to eradicate disease and we’re already seeing results where they are being used.  They overwhelmingly believe helping is the right thing to do.

How can you help?

Encourage your political representatives to prioritize funding for treatment and research.  Donate to a large organization dedicated to fighting diseases globally and encourage your employer to become a contributor, as well.  Volunteer with a group that sends medical supplies to affected parts of the word.  Spread the word.

Click here to read a full transcript of the chat.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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