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Public Health Initiative Targets River Blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa

River Blindness is one of the world’s neglected tropical diseases -- a term the World Health Organization uses to officially refer to them. The disease affects people in 19 sub-Saharan African countries. The US-based Carter Center is working with these countries to control and, in one case, to eradicate the disease. Dr. Frank Richards directs the Center’s River Blindness Program. He attended a recent conference in Washington on Global Health in the 21st Century, where he spoke with Voice of America English to Africa reporter Cole Mallard. In this fifth and final part of our series on neglected tropical diseases, Dr. Richards says river blindness occurs in areas near rapidly flowing streams, the breeding place for the black fly, which transmits the disease.

The Carter Center official says river blindness is common in most of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa and surrounding areas. He says the two countries most affected by the disease are Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC.)

Dr. Richards says the program’s success is due to two major factors: former president Jimmy Carter’s long-standing interest in combating river blindness and the decision in 1987 by the pharmaceutical company Merck to indefinitely donate a drug called Mectizan, which the Carter Center helped distribute. He says the effort got another boost in 1996, when the Center partnered with the health ministries of five African countries. The doctor says, “I’m very proud to say that during the 11-year period we’ve been working, we’ve distributed over a hundred million treatments in Nigeria, Uganda, Cameroon, Sudan and Ethiopia.”


Dr. Richards says massive group treatment is provided in the form of a tablet given once or twice a year by volunteers in communities that have high infection levels. He says the pill reduces the risk of blindness and, in some cases, helps those with the disease get better: “We hear great stories about people now able to read their Bibles or their Korans -- or tailors, for example, who couldn’t thread needles before, who are now able to thread their needles; or mothers and grandmothers who need to chase their kids around and make sure they’re safe, now able to do that better without the fear of running into a wall, because they were unable to see due to the river blindness parasite.”


Dr. Richards says Uganda is adopting a new approach in treating river blindness, shifting from containing the disease to eradicating it. The Carter Center official admits this is not the first time such an approach has been tried. But he adds, “It is really the first time that a country has embraced an eradication policy and declared to the world that this is what they’re going to try and do. It’s quite a brave approach and the Carter Center is excited about it, and we have declared ourselves partners with Uganda and their ministry of health in this endeavor.”