COHESION – a challenge to Frenk and Gómez-Dantés

In The Lancet, in February 2017 ( S0140-6736(16)30181-7), two leading thinkers in global health, Julio Frenk and Octavio Gómez-Dantés, challenged the status quo of many of today’s public health and healthcare delivery processes through a detailed assessment of a variety of dichotomies that exist in global health. Frenk and Gómez-Dantés’ main message was the need for integration in global health across a wide range of challenges. This interesting piece led to a thought provoking discussion within the COHESION Team where we asked ourselves: are we operating within or beyond those scenarios of dichotomies?

The first dichotomy they describe is the prevention versus treatment debate. How does COHESION address this first dichotomy? For non-communicable diseases (NCD), even if all prevention measures are successful some people will still develop some of the conditions included in this overarching group. For Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) the “endgame” for many of these diseases is envisionable given the existence of medicines which provide a “magic bullet” to cure people and/or break the cycle of transmission. However, for both NCDs and NTDs people have already been exposed to some of the risk factors, have biological changes (e.g. high blood pressure; infected with Cysticercosis) and therefore require care. Yet, both NCDs and NTDs share fundamental root causes that determine its existence: poverty and exclusion. We cannot address treatment solely without the broader need for prevention.

The next “clash” described is the vertical versus horizontal debate. For NCDs and NTDs this debate is mute as the main driver of vertical programmes was funding. As was seen for HIV/AIDS funds were allocated to create complete vertical systems for distribution of medicines, training of health professionals, delivery of care, etc. For both groups of diseases that COHESION focuses on this funding is lacking thus vertical solutions are not implemented. That said NTDs are more at risk of becoming “verticalised” given the higher level of funding available in comparison to the burden, the “easier” solutions of mass drug administration (for some NTDs) and the defined populations that are impacted by some diseases. COHESION through its research and development of interventions will try to ensure a horizontal approach in order to benefit not only those with NCDs and NTDs, but any one requiring health care at primary level. We are allowing ourselves to redefine the interaction of an individual with the existing healthcare system where chronicity and continuity of care are fundamental.

Number three on Frenk and Octavio Gómez-Dantés’ list is primary versus specialized care. As mentioned above the main focus of COHESION is on primary health care. Given that our emphasis is on NCDs and NTDs which are both chronic in nature this will enable a strengthening of primary health care to guarantee continuity of care. Traditionally primary health care has been successful in maternal and child health, delivery of HIV/AIDS care (with significant funding) and acute care. However, with the burden of chronic disease a shift in the role of primary health care is needed. Through its formative research and interventions COHESION will focus its efforts on developing this level of the health system. We are not denying care, but aim integrate chronic care at primary health care as well as facilitate referral to specialized care when needed.

By design COHESION lays the fourth dichotomy to rest, the noncommunicable versus communicable disease prioritisaiton. By including NCDs and NTDs together within the core of its project COHESION wanted to focus on models of delivery of care versus mode of transmission. Leprosy and Type 2 diabetes from a delivery of care perspective share many similarities despite being communicable and noncommunicable. Need for proper diagnosis and initiation of treatment; patient education and empowerment; address issues of stigma; and prevention of complications.

Finally, the latest dichotomy posed the challenge between knowledge generation versus action. Again, COHESION is in a unique position thanks to the funding mechanism developed by the Swiss National Science Foundation and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The funding COHESION has received will not only enable the generation of new knowledge on NCDs and NTDs, at policy, health system and community level, but also to use this to co-create innovative interventions working closely with local partners through.

The title of Frenk and Octavio Gómez-Dantés’ comment includes the word “integrative”. COHESION in the design of its team and project has had this word as a guiding principle. Integration of different expertise from a variety of countries, institutions and individuals; different diseases and disease groups; different methodological approaches; local partners and stakeholders in the research and intervention development. As COHESION we would add another dichotomy to the list proposed by Frenk and Octavio Gómez-Dantés that is how solutions in global health are developed. Most solutions to date have had their roots in meetings at the World Health Organization, the minds of the best and brightest academics and in the offices of Ministries of Health. Our approach proposes a bottom up approach where interventions are informed by this, but designed by beneficiaries. To date although different normative documents exist on how to tackle the burden of NCDs and NTDs success is still far away. We hope through our innovative approach to find ways of addressing NCDs and NTDs as well as contributing to breaking down the dichotomies that Frenk and Octavio Gómez-Dantés highlight.


Written by David Beran and Jaime Miranda for COHESION








Selecting the NTD in Peru

“Selecting the NTD in Peru:
Engaging stakeholders in the difficult decision of selecting what underserved disease to prioritize”

The COHESION Project aims to address the double burden of disease that face health systems and communities by improving capacities at the national, local and community levels in three countries (Mozambique, Nepal and Peru). To assess the barriers that underserved communities face when accessing Primary Health Care (PHC) each country team selected a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) and two Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) (diabetes and hypertension). These three diseases would be used as “tracer” conditions to understand the challenges of local health systems to effectively manage these diseases at the PHC level.

Why tracers? Because individuals with one or both, NTD or NCD, have the unique scenario of requiring chronic, engaging, meaningful, respectful and effective care. Both of these tracers, NTDs and NCDs, allow us a second chance to get it right, to redefine the user experience with our healthcare system.

In Mozambique, the selected NTD was Schistosomiasis, while the Nepalese team chose Leprosy. In Peru, we had initially selected Chagas but we felt we needed more information about the various NTDs with chronic sequels affecting people in Peru before making a final decision.

After several discussions with experts and internal conversations about the appropriateness of Chagas and other NTDs including Leprosy, Hydatidosis and Neurocysticercosis, we decided on Neurocysticercosis.

In this post, we share the reasons that lead us to this decision.

We first contacted an expert in Leprosy. We learned that it has not been fully eradicated in some regions in Peru, although the national prevalence rate is lower than 1 case x 10 000 inhabitants (Burstein, 2014). Leprosy still affects some small localities of the Amazon regions, where several geographical barriers and a dispersion settlement pattern predominate (Burstein, 2014). Addressing Leprosy is a challenge given the under diagnosis and other problems related with the epidemiological information systems for reporting of new cases.

Chagas disease affects over 8 million people in the Americas and about 190,000 persons with this disease live in Peru (Bayer et al., 2009). After different national and regional efforts in the nineties for the elimination of the Chagas vector (Triatoma infestans), the incidence of this disease was reduced. The main region affected in Peru is Arequipa, in the Southern Andes. As a result of efforts from different public and private institutions the vectorborne transmission of the disease has been significantly reduced and is now located in peri-urban shantytowns near the city of Arequipa as a response of urbanization processes and migration (Delgado et al., 2011). There is still work to do to eradicate Chagas, starting with the approval of a standardized protocol for the management of the disease and intensification of efforts in diagnosing people plus more thorough surveillance activities with special focus in shantytowns (Bayer et al., 2009). One reason that leads us to reconsider Chagas as the selected NTD is that symptoms may take about 20 years to develop and only few persons who have lesions show a recovery after pharmacological treatment. Additionally, the migration of the disease to peri-urban zone would leave us without the opportunity to explore the response of PHC for patients with NTD in rural area and to develop strategies to enhance the user experience with services provided by the PHC.

When exploring Hydatidosis and Cysticercosis, we learned that “controlling the parasitic infection in animals is crucial to reduce the incidence of human disease” (Otero-Abad & Torgerson, 2013). Both diseases are closely related with human behavior, for example with education about the transmission of the diseases and the prevention with hygiene actions. Currently, there is no vector control program for Hydatidosis in Peru. There was an effort for developing a program that included radio programs with educational messages and the empowerment of school teachers as providers of health and sanitary messages. However, control programs and educative activities were discontinued. Moreover, this disease is not notifiable in Peru, which makes it harder to know its current prevalence.

Finally, we looked into Neurocysticercosis (NCC), which is an “infection of the nervous system by the cystic larvae of Taenia solium” (Garcia, Nash, & Del Brutto, 2014) that frequently causes seizures and epilepsy. Worldwide, over 5 million cases of epilepsy are caused by Neurocysticercosis (Nash, Mahanty, & Garcia, 2013). Neurocysticercosis is especially endemic in areas characterized by poor water and sanitation systems and where pigs are not corralling with access to human feces (García, Gonzalez, Evans, & Gilman, 2003). In Peru, Neurocysticercosis affected approximately 35% of persons with active epilepsy, which is a very high rate comparable with Honduras and India. Only one out of every four patients with active epilepsy receive pharmacological treatment, but in sub-therapeutic doses (Moyano et al., 2014). It has been demonstrated that the transmission of Taenia solium was eliminated in 105 of 107 villages in Tumbes (region located in the north of the country) after an “attack phase” during one year that comprises people and pigs, and this result persisted over 1 year (Garcia et al., 2016; Maurice, 2014). However, there are still cases of NCC in the intervened region after several years of the implementation of the control program and there are other endemic regions affected by this disease in Peru.

The aforementioned efforts for the different NTDs and the pending actions for reaching the control of the diseases were the main topics discussed with different experts in the field. We were impressed with their high motivation, solidarity and expertise gained through the years. For example, there are strong research teams for the study of Chagas and Cysticercosis that have made relevant contributions like the risk mapping of the zones to inform surveillance system for Chagas or the massive intervention in persons and pigs from rural villages of northern Peru for blocking transmission of cysticercosis.

All experts agreed that whatever NTD we chose, we would be making a difference because they affect the most vulnerable.

Our decision about the selection of Neurocysticercosis for the purpose of the COHESION project was made considering to prioritize an NTD that generates a chronic condition that requires long-term treatment like epilepsy and affecting the poor of the poorest population in rural area, where PHC response is more relevant as the first point of entry for care. In so doing, by choosing NCC, together with an understanding of other major prevalent NCD conditions like diabetes and hypertension, will provide us with a second chance to get it right, to redefine the user experience within our healthcare system.

Acknowledgments: We thank César Náquira, Ricardo Castillo, Valerie Paz-Soldán, Aldo Lucchetti, Luz María Moyano, Ricardo Gamboa and H. Hugo García for their valuable time and insights about NTDs for the purpose of the COHESION project.


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