Neglected tropical diseases

What are neglected tropical diseases?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of diseases that disproportionately affect low-income populations.  The group includes: major parasitic worm infections, such as ascariasis (roundworm), hookworm, trichuriasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis (river blindness), and dracunculiasis (guinea worm); infections caused by single-celled protozoan parasites such as Chagas, leishmaniasis, and human African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness); as well as  several bacterial infections such as trachoma, Buruli ulcer, and leprosy.[1] The WHO has prioritized control of 17 NTDs that are endemic in 149 countries and affect more than 1.4 billion people, costing developing economies billions of dollars every year.[1, 2]

Why are neglected tropical diseases a human rights issue?

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health Professor Paul Hunt wrote that NTDs “are both a cause and consequence of human rights violations.”[3,4] Data collected by the WHO show that although nearly one billion people are affected by NTDs because they have few economic resources and are often politically and economically marginalized, the international community has not allocated sufficient funds to eliminate these diseases. Analysis conducted by the United Nations (UN) has found that NTDs “are more likely to occur where human rights, such as the rights to health, education, and housing, are not guaranteed.”[4] The UN report also stated that NTDs also result in violations of human rights, particularly the right to equality and non-discrimination.[4]

What are the relevant sources?

International human rights laws protect people affected by NTDs. Key legislation that has significance for NTDs include: Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Article 2 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights among others. General Comment 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights outlines specific obligations for states, which relate directly to the control of NTDs:

  • Ensure the right of access to health facilities, goods and services on a non-discriminatory basis, especially for vulnerable and marginalized groups
  • Ensure access to basic shelter, housing and sanitation, and an adequate supply of safe and potable water
  • Provide essential drugs, as defined under the WHO Action Programme on Essential Drugs
  • Provide immunization against the major infectious diseases occurring in the community
  • Take measures to prevent, treat and control epidemic and endemic diseases, and
  • Provide education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.[4]

What are the relevant issues/problems with regards to neglected tropical diseases?

Communities affected by NTDs often do not have access to health services, essential medicines, adequate housing, and safe water. All of these factors perpetuate the spread of NTDs.  Furthermore, once a patient has contracted one of these illnesses, he or she often experiences violations of other human rights. For example, many patients have reported discrimination and a lack of privacy after contracting an NTD.[4]

How can the situation be improved?

NTDs have been allowed to spread because they are tied to specific geographic areas and do not affect high-income countries as severely. Similarly, there is little incentive for the global private sector to develop new medicines and vaccines for diseases that primarily affect low-income communities.  Nevertheless, many effective treatments exist that can be distributed at low cost. The challenge is garnering sufficient financial support from the international community to scale up prevention and control programs.  

Health professionals and other interested individuals can assist greatly by writing to their government representatives, blogging about the overlap between NTDs and human rights, and generating awareness about the impact of NTDs using traditional and social media among other activities.

This page was written by Tara Ornstein in July 2015.


[1] World Health Organization. “Neglected Tropical Diseases.” Geneva; 2015. URL:

[2] World Health Organization. “Other Neglected Tropical Diseases.” Geneva; 2014. URL:

[3] World Health Organization. “A Human Rights-Based Approach to Neglected Tropical Diseases.” Geneva; 2009. URL:

[4] Hunt, Paul et al. Neglected Tropical Diseases: A Human Rights Analysis. WHO: Geneva; 2007. URL:



Topics: , ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Right to health indicators; good practices for the right to health; HIV/AIDS and the right to health; neglected diseases, leprosy and the right to health; and an optional protocol to ICESCR (2003) - Annual report to the UN General Assembly, A/58/427
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health

Open resource