Charity bids to rid Africa of blinding disease

Development charity Sightsavers has today unveiled a 10-year campaign to help eliminate one of the world’s leading causes of preventable blindness, termed onchocerciasis (also river blindness). With plans to fundraise and invest more than £27 million over the next decade to help combat this neglected tropical disease (NTD) across Africa, the charity is starting work this month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the disease is endemic.

Globally the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 120 million peopleare at risk from, and 37 million people are already infected with onchocerciasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of the black simulium fly that breeds in fast-flowing water.

However, there is hope for the communities impacted by this devastating disease in Africa, where 99 per cent of the global burden of onchocerciasis is centred.   Evidence from the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), Sightsavers’ key partner in fighting onchocerciasis, has found that a medicine called 'Mectizan'® (ivermectin) taken six monthly or annually for 15–17 years  can help control the disease.  With the support of Sightsavers, a study has shown evidence of the feasibility of elimination of the disease as a public health threat by the end of 2012 in regions in Uganda, Nigeria and Mali.

Since 1987, global pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Inc. (known as MSD in the UK) has donated 'Mectizan' for the treatment of onchocerciasisSightsavers currently supports the distribution of this treatment in 13 countries across Africa.  One of the main challenges in fighting this disease is getting the treatment to remote communities.  Sightsavers has helped to pioneer the community-based distribution system which uses trained village volunteers to hand out the drugs at a local level.  Because of this, it costs just 5p for Sightsavers to protect someone against onchocerciasis for a year and in 2010 it was able to treat over 23.1 million people for the disease.

It is through this drug distribution method that Sightsavers plans to work with partners to increase efforts to eliminate the disease.  It plans to increase annual treatments by approximately 30 per cent, to reach 30 million people a year.  It will also fund the training of 150,000 community directed distributors annually to support the scaling-up of distribution. 

To help Africa achieve elimination of the onchocerciasis parasite, Sightsavers also plans to develop new programs in neighboring countries where the disease is endemic.  Working with The United Front Against Riverblindness (UFAR) in the Democratic Republic of Congo it aims to reach some of the 19.3 million people living in at-risk communities.  Post-conflict conditions and logistical challenges mean that this country has received little support in the past but efforts will be scaled-up with treatment distribution starting imminently.  Sightsavers also plans to support Ivory Coast and Angola in combating this blinding disease.

Commenting on the fast-track plan, Simon Bush, Sightsavers’ Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases said: “Onchocerciasis needlessly devastates the lives of individuals, families and whole communities.  It could – and should – be consigned to medical history which is why we are investing in scaling-up and expanding our program activities over the next 10 years.  To help rid Africa of this parasitic disease would not just eliminate one of the NTDs but it would alleviate the impact of blindness in Africa by reducing those needlessly blinded by this disease, removing a serious obstacle to socio-economic development across the continent.”

Onchocerciasis is one of the 17 NTDs identified by theWorld Health Organization which are believed to affect one billion of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.  Together, many NTDs cause severe disability, resulting in billions of dollars of lost productivity.  Sightsavers is also investing in programmes to support the elimination of trachoma, another blinding condition, from across Africa and Asia by 2020.  Sightsavers maintains that treating such diseases is one way to help alleviate poverty in some of the world's poorest communities.

1. Yaounde Declaration on Onchocerciasis Control in Africa. (2006); A Declaration of African Ministers of Health on the future of onchocerciasis in Africa and report of the meeting
3. Charting the Lion’s Share: The story of river blindness mapping in Africa, APOC, WHO, 2010


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