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Noma: The Forgotten Disease Now Recognized by WHO as a Neglected Tropical Disease

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Mason Walker
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Noma: The Forgotten Disease Now Recognized by WHO as a Neglected Tropical Disease

Noma: The Forgotten Disease Now Recognized by WHO as a Neglected Tropical Disease

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In a significant move towards addressing health disparities, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially recognized noma as a neglected tropical disease (NTD). A severe gangrenous disease of the mouth and face, noma primarily affects malnourished young children in regions of extreme poverty. This recognition, a major step forward in the global battle against noma, aims to catalyze research, amplify global awareness, stimulate funding, and boost efforts to control the disease.

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What is Noma?

Noma is a rapidly progressing severe gangrenous disease, also known as cancrum oris or gangrenous stomatitis. It primarily affects malnourished children aged between 2-6 years living in extreme poverty with poor oral health or weakened immune systems. The disease is prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia, among other regions. Due to various factors, accurately estimating noma cases is challenging. However, the reported case fatality rate has decreased since the early 2000s.

The Link between Noma and Poverty

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Noma is considered a marker of absolute poverty, and it is linked with malnutrition, immunosuppression, infections, poor oral health, and extreme poverty. The disease often begins as inflamed gums and, if left untreated, can lead to the destruction of facial structures and kill up to 90% of those affected. The exact cause of noma is still unknown, and it is difficult to estimate its true numbers due to its occurrence in remote villages.

Efforts to Control Noma

Early detection is essential for effective treatment of noma, which involves antibiotics, oral hygiene improvement, and nutritional supplements. The WHO has led global and regional noma control efforts, including the implementation of the Regional Noma Control Programme in eleven priority countries in the WHO African Region. With the official recognition of noma as a neglected tropical disease, WHO is committed to supporting advocacy efforts, research, and implementation of interventions against noma in coordination with NTD programs at the national level. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has also joined in the fight against noma, providing reconstructive surgery, nutritional support, and mental health support, especially in Nigeria.

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Why Noma Was Neglected

The inclusion of noma in the WHO's list of NTDs has been a long time coming. The delay in adding noma to the neglected tropical disease list has been attributed to the disease's classification as a dental disease, which has long been underappreciated in global health concerns. The lack of dental representation on the committee overseeing NTD decisions has also contributed to noma's neglect. However, the recent recognition of noma as a neglected tropical disease is a testament to the tireless work of numerous advocates and countries.

The recognition of noma as an NTD is a significant milestone in the fight against this devastating disease. It underscores the WHO's commitment to expanding health services to vulnerable populations and shines a light on this overlooked health crisis. The path ahead requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders to ensure this disease is no longer neglected and children in the world's poorest regions are protected from its devastating effects.

Neglected Tropical Diseases
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