America has a hidden epidemic of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).  As the world continues to shrink, there has been an outbreak of third-world diseases in industrialized countries, including the United States.

U.S. citizens now have diseases with which most people aren’t even familiar.  In fact, most doctors are unaware of NTDs, and so often, they remain undiagnosed.  These diseases include Toxocara canis, Chagas disease, Ascaris lumbricoides, Strongyloides stercoralis, Dengue fever and cysticercosis.  If you think these names sound scary, check out the links to find out what they do.

Exacerbating the challenge, only 0.6% of new drugs developed over the past 25 years are meant to treat NTDs.  That's despite the fact that NTDs accounted for more than 11% of the global disease burden.

So how widespread is the problem?

NTDs like Chagas Disease, Toxocara canis, worms and other diseases usually found in the developing world may already afflict 14 million people in the U.S., according to Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine, the founder of the first dedicated school of tropical medicine in America.  Even Dengue fever, largely driven from the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s by DDT application, is making a comeback in America.

The bad news is that government response has been tepid.  In 2010, a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that was aimed at funding the surveillance of NTDs failed to become law.  So much for government intervention.

The good news is that the private sector has increased investment in NTD-treating drug development in light of this recent NTD emergence. Certain cutting-edge biotech, antiviral drug, vaccine and diagnostic test companies are standing to pick up the slack. GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, has introduced a vaccine for malaria which is currently in the final development and testing stage.

In addition, non-profit groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also sponsor research on NTDs.  To date, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has funded close to US$3MM for NTD-based research.

Many of the NTDs are vector-borne diseases.  That means that they can be transmitted by another person, an animal or a microorganism that carries and transmits an infectious pathogen.  Pathogens may enter the body via a bug bite, skin breaks or mucous membranes.

Infection could also result from eating infected food or coming into contact with contaminated bodily fluids.

It is important to follow your local health code. The rules vary state by state, but in many places, food service workers are required to wear gloves, at a minimum vinyl gloves, and sometimes nitrile gloves. These prevent the transfer of germs from the hands to the food.

So how can you protect yourself from NTDs?  One important step is using proper hand protection such as these nitrile gloves and Personal Protective Apparel (PPE) apparel including face masks, shoe covers, and, when necessary, protective "bunny suits."

Anyone who is in a high-risk environment should take precautions to prevent infections. With NTDs, as the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Written by Rob Brown