Can AI help to eliminate neglected tropical diseases?

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to make diagnostics for multiple neglected tropical diseases faster and more accurate, moving the world one step closer to their elimination.

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) affect the world’s poorest and most underserved communities. NTDs are especially rife in tropical regions where there is little access to clean water and sanitation is poor. These infections can have a devastating impact on people’s lives, particularly on the health and development of children.

There are over 20 communicable diseases that make up NTDs and impact 1.7 billion people each year [1]. For example, schistosomiasis (or bilharzia) is a chronic illness that affects almost 240 million people worldwide [2]. Meanwhile, around 1.5 billion people (or almost one-quarter of the world’s population) are affected by soil-transmitted helminthiasis (STH) [3]. These infections, often overlapping regionally, are both caused by different species of parasitic worm and are transmitted by eggs in human urine or feces via contaminated soil or water.

But there is hope that these NTDs can be controlled or eliminated through the mass administration of safe and effective medicines together with other interventions. Making decisions about the most effective public health programs relies heavily on accurate data about who has a disease. But this can be challenging to achieve at a population-wide level – and is further complicated by the fact that people with NTDs are often infected with more than one pathogen.

Picture of an automated microscope with AI

Current diagnostic testing involves a lab technician counting the eggs that would develop into parasitic worms of schistosomiasis or STH in a urine or stool sample by looking down a microscope. But AI technologies offer exciting new opportunities to potentially speed up and improve the accuracy of this manual procedure.

To this end, we have forged a new partnership with Janssen Pharmaceutica, N.V., part of the Janssen Pharmaceuticals Companies of Johnson & Johnson, to develop a new AI-based tool that has the potential to improve the detection of schistosomiasis and STH.
“We are extremely proud of this unique partnership with Janssen,” says Béatrice Greco, Head of Research & Development at our Global Health Institute. “Together, we are joining forces to explore how state-of-the-art Science and Technologies can be used not only to address the need of most vulnerable patients suffering from several NTDs but also to support the commitments of our respective companies to support these communities.”

We have been fighting schistosomiasis with our partner, the World Health Organization (WHO) since 2007 through our Schistosomiasis Elimination Program. This project forms part of our wider commitment to eliminate the disease from the world as a public health problem.   

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