Less than a year after Colombia eliminated onchocerciasis from its borders, its neighboring country, Venezuela, is making similar strides in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Earlier this month, we were excited to hear that Venezuela interrupted transmission of onchocerciasis in its last remaining focus area of the country – meaning Venezuela is well on its way to being certified for eliminating this painful and disfiguring disease.
Onchocerciasis is the world’s fourth leading cause of preventable blindness. As one of the seven most common NTDs, onchocerciasis primarily affects poor populations living along rivers. Infection occurs when black flies carrying the filarial parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus bite humans. After the larvae enter the body, develop into adult worms, and eventually die, the disease progresses to cause severe skin rashes and depigmentation, visual impairment and blindness. Control efforts in the both the Latin American and African regions are focused on eliminating this NTD as a public health concern.
If you can recall, six countries in the region of the Americas were previously endemic to onchocerciasis: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela. Through the concerted efforts of the ministries of health of the endemic countries and the local communities, the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA), the Carter Center, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and Merck & Co., 11 out of the 13 foci had achieved control of this NTD by 2013. The two remaining foci are found in the border region between Venezuela and Brazil, specifically in the migrant Yanomami indigenous community.
Francisco Armada, Venezuela’s Minister of Health, announced the interruption of transmission on World Health Day last week. The People’s Ministry of Health of Venezuela (MPPS) and the PAHO country office will now begin the three-year surveillance stage. If no new cases are found during the three years, Venezuela can begin the process for certifying the elimination of onchocerciasis. Minister Armada also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to Brazil to continue working together to reach the joint goal of onchocerciasis elimination in the region.
Colombia was the first country in the Americas to receive verification of the elimination of this NTD from the World Health Organization (WHO). Ecuador has completed the three-year surveillance phase and Guatemala and Mexico are close to completing it – after this phase, they will be able to request verification of elimination from WHO. The progress demonstrated in the Latin American and Carribbean region is encouraging.
We congratulate Venezuela on this success and look forward to following the country’s – and the region’s – progress towards onchocerciasis elimination!