PLOS NTDs Fifth Anniversary: Questions for Co-Editors-in-Chief Peter Hotez and Serap Aksoy

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To celebrate the Fifth Anniversary of the launch of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, we are proud to announce the following new releases that reflect on progress in the NTDs field and the challenges that remain:

Ahead of the Anniversary, I caught up with Peter Hotez and Serap Aksoy, Co-Editors-in-Chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, to get their thoughts on the last five years in the field of NTDs, the experience of running the journal, and some of the questions raised by the Geopolitics Collection and call for Historical Profile submissions.

Are there any key lessons learned or challenges overcome in the launch of PLOS NTDs and its growth over the past five years? What key challenges does the journal foresee in the coming years?  

We tapped into an unmet need – PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases became the first open access journal specifically devoted to the group of chronic parasitic and related infections that became known as the “NTDs.”  We took on these diseases not only at the level of molecular and cellular pathobiology and clinical medicine and epidemiology as do other journals but also we wanted to be at the cutting edge of policy and social science of the NTDs.  In so doing we feel that we gave a voice to the neglected people and populations who suffer from these conditions.

Equally important, we’ve worked hard to ensure a scientific capacity-building function for our open access journal.  We’ve also organized multiple writing workshops globally to make the process transparent and familiar, particularly for our colleagues in the endemic nations. Today one third of our editorial board is from a disease-endemic country and works there. Next to the U.S., the second most papers come from Brazil.  We are very proud of that track record. Finally, our new Global Participation Initiative policy now makes it possible for our colleagues from disease endemic countries to contribute their work either free of charge or at reduced rates.

What do we learn from looking at disease burden by region?

Something important that we learned from this geographic approach are the significant regional differences among the NTDs.  For instance, the major NTDs affecting the Latin American and Caribbean region are quite different from South Asia, etc.  However, there are also some similarities – the major soil-transmitted helminth infections – hookworm infection, ascariasis, and trichuriasis – are absolutely ubiquitous!

We also learned that poverty is an overriding factor – wherever we find poverty we find the NTDs, whether it’s in Uganda or in the United States.

Finally we learned that every region could benefit from mass drug administration for some of the major endemic NTDs but there is an urgent need to conduct parallel research & development for all of the NTDs in the different affected regions.

“Lao schoolchildren receiving praziquantel; from ‘Efficacy of Praziquantel against Schistosoma mekongi andOpisthorchis viverrini: A Randomized, Single-Blinded Dose-Comparison Trial’” Image Credit: Leonore Lovis

What specific research, policies, and/or funding priorities does the Geopolitics of NTDs Collection point toward?

An important lesson learned is that because the NTDs are practically ubiquitous among the world’s poor and actually perpetuate poverty due to their adverse impact on children, girls and women, and agricultural productivity – these diseases themselves become powerful socioeconomic forces.  So much so we believe that we need to rethink how disease (but especially NTDs) has the potential to reshape foreign policy.  We mean this both at the level of providing health care but also international research and development  – we sometimes use the term “vaccine diplomacy” to describe the role of joint R&D as a means to promote international peace.

Has network-enabled content, such as open access research and perhaps even social media, empowered treatment of NTDs in afflicted regions and communities?

Yes, open content is crucial to raising the public profile for NTDs and making them a priority public health issue for the United States and other donor governments. The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases  an initiative of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, has launched the first and only campaign, called END7, to raise the funds and public awareness necessary to make NTDs the next major issue in global health

Through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube along with traditional media and public awareness tactics, END7 seeks to catalyze grassroots, political and philanthropic support for NTD control efforts to increase funding for this important global health issue.

The journal has issued a call for Historical Profiles and Perspectives submissions. What is the rationale behind the planned series and what do we hope to learn?

The research and policy papers published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases are built on the backs of giants in the field of tropical medicine who conducted field work and laboratory research over the last century.  We need to be mindful of their important contributions and pay tribute to their labors.  There are also many stellar institutions in disease endemic countries that are vital for NTD research and dissemination of this knowledge may further collaborations among our community.

Do you believe current geopolitical forces and the global economy will help or hurt the ability to combat NTDs in afflicted regions?

The Oxford economist Paul Collier uses the metaphors of “conflict trap” and “poverty trap” to describe the plight of the “bottom billion” – the 1.4 billion people in the world who live below the World Bank poverty level of $1.25 a day.  We take it one step further by promoting the concept that the NTDs are among the most important yet stealth forces that create these poverty and conflict traps.  It’s a new framework for thinking about disease, but especially the NTDs, as a potent geopolitical force.  Scientists make great ambassadors.  If we can reshape foreign policy and promote diplomacy that includes NTD research and capacity building efforts in large parts of the world where these diseases are endemic, we can definitely help combat NTDs.

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