River Blindness Affects 18 Million People Worldwide

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The River Blindness Disease Cycle - via The Carter Center
The River Blindness Disease Cycle – via The Carter Center

CNN reports that with river blindness, you never sleep:

About 18 million people have river blindness worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, but more than 99% of cases of this disease are found in Africa. It goes by the technical name “onchocerciasis,” and it spreads through small black flies that breed in fast-flowing, highly oxygenated waters. When an infected fly bites a person, it drops worm larvae in the skin, which can then grow and reproduce in the body.

While not fatal, the itch can be so excruciating, those infected will go so far as to use a red-hot machete against their skin to relieve the pain and  “people infected with the worms are driven to suicide.”

Additionally, the disease has great social impact:

One patient who made a big impression on [a doctor] was Semanza from the Rukungiri district of Uganda. In 1992, Semanza’s skin looked like it was covered in dried mud, and flies swarmed around him. No one from his village wanted to be near him and he lived in a hut behind his family’s home, separated from everyone else.

However, there are efforts to eliminate the disease:

In 1995 the African Programme for Ocnhocerciasis Control was founded by a group of nongovernmental organizations, governments, and United Nations agencies, with the World Health Organization overseeing it.

Learn more about this disease, its cause and symptoms, elimination efforts, and efforts to empower afflicted communities.

Dr. Frank O. Richards is Director of the River Blindness Program, Lymphatic Filariasis Elimination Program, Schistosomiasis Control Program, and Malaria Control Program at The Carter Center. The NTD programs he directs at The Carter Center have helped to provide more than 185 million preventive treatments for parasitic disease in 11 countries and the malaria program has helped provide over 10 million insecticide-treated bed nets in Nigeria and Ethiopia.

In the Americas, where river blindness has occurred in isolated areas in six countries — Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela — The Carter Center is the sponsoring agency for the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas (OEPA), which aims to stop transmission of the disease within the next few years.

Today, with continued health education and treatment, no one in the Americas has to fear becoming blind from the disease. Colombia (2007) and Ecuador (2009) were two of the first countries in the world to have stopped disease transmission through mass drug administration and health education, followed by Mexico and Guatemala, which made similar announcements in November 2011. Program efforts remain focused on Brazil and Venezuela.

How can the success in South America be replicated in Africa? How can we address the challenges faced by those seeking to eliminate this disease and diseases like it?

Dr. Frank O. Richards will be one of many speakers at Wheelock College’s International Conference. Follow the link for more information about how you can attend the conference.