Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Julia Tischler
Co-supervisor: Prof. Dr. Guillaume Lachenal
Advisor: Dr. Lukas Meier
We live in an unequal world. Over 1 billion people suffer from neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) such as parasitic worm diseases, human African trypanosomiasis or buruli ulcers. These ‘silent killers’ often affect the most neglected populations living in remote parts of Africa, Asia or Latin America. Taken together, the NTDs account for higher mortality rates than HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis. This PhD project aims to investigate the history of neglected diseases using the examples of bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis). The key question is: how have neglected diseases become neglected?
The term ‘neglected tropical diseases’ was coined by the WHO in 2005, referring to a group of twenty communicable diseases that prevail in tropical and subtropical conditions in 149 countries. It is a historical construct that needs to be investigated: why and in what context did this term come up? And was it intended as a criticism of the lack of attention for these diseases? Indeed, it is a representation of global inequalities in dealing with diseases: some seem to be important and receive attention, while others are neglected – even though statistics show that they are in fact widespread. Which leads to further questions: who is neglecting these diseases and why? The historical investigation of NTDs reveals that these diseases have not always been neglected by institutional and political actors, and they are certainly not neglected on a local level – on the contrary, they pose a daily threat to affected populations. While these tropical diseases have been discussed prominently by colonial doctors and administrations, who feared their impact on colonial troops and settlers, global interest in them gradually faded after the independence of African states. This project studies the roles that national governments and international organisations have played in establishing distinct hierarchies of diseases, their related research, control, and eradication programs.
While the events discussed in this PhD project range from around 1945 to the present, the main emphasis lies in the years of late colonialism until the 1980s. Covering the shift from colonialism to independence and the decades after allows for an observation of how young nations tried to build their own health systems and how they struggled with internal and external challenges (e.g. structural adjustment programs). This timespan makes it possible to fully reveal the changes NTD perception, research, control and elimination went through, and to examine, if and to what extent colonial patterns persisted after independence. To reach this goal, this study combines the history of epidemiology, science and politics.