More Frightening Than Lions

Reprinted with permission from HKI’s Seeds of Sight blog.
Doug Steinberg goes to a village in Niger that has eliminated the threat of River Blindness thanks to mass drug distribution.
Doug Steinberg with Kalifa Doumbia, a community distributor v2

Doug Steinberg, HKI’s Deputy Regional Director for West Africa, joins the team traveling with NY Times Journalist, Nicholas Kristof. The picture to the left is Doug with Kalifa Doumbia, a community distributor of the drug, Ivermectin.

The village of Moli is located about 85 miles south of Niger’s capital Niamey on the edge of the W National Park, a wildlife reserve with big game, small creatures and a variety of bird-life. The area lies west of the Niger River, with many tributaries flowing through it. These streams dry up in the long, dry season, but they come to life in the rainy season, which is just beginning. Among the life is the black fly, a vector for Onchocerciasis (river blindness).

I just joined the HKI group traveling with Nick Kristof and the two “Win-a-Trip” winners, and we visited a village where Onchocerciasis control, mainly through distributing the drug Mectizan®, donated by Merck & Co., Inc., occurred from 1987 to 1996. The disease is debilitating; micro-filaria (or tiny worms) infest the body, form painful nodes below the skin, and eventually destroy vision. Thanks to the mass drug treatment, Onchocerciasis has been brought under control, and no carriers have been detected since 1992. The young people are free of the disease, although there are a few older folks who suffer from it. One, Natchimou Bagna, now 47, was blinded when he was about 17 years old.

Natchimou Bagna

Natchimou Bagna, blinded from Onchocerciasis

Natchimou reports that as many as 50% of the population in his area was affected when he was growing up. The onset of the disease began when he was in school, but despite being blind for 30 years, he gets around his village easily. He knows his environment intimately and does not need anyone to guide him. He walks without a cane, takes care of his gardening, collects water and performs other village chores. But it has not been easy. He earns a meager living, and had to scrape and save for almost 20 years before he could marry. He and his wife, Miara, barely get by. Two of their four children died before they turned 2, and the entire family lives hand-to-mouth.

When Natchimou received his first drug treatment of Ivermectin (same medicine as Mectizan®), he immediately felt better. The pain disappeared. “I was able to sleep through the whole night for the first time,” he reports. Although cured of the disease, he still feels itchiness some days, and of course, his blindness is permanent.

Living on the edge of the park, lion attacks are not unheard of. In 1996, a 15 year-old boy was attacked and killed in Natchimou’s village. During that time, “we were more afraid of the black fly than of lions.” This fear, thankfully, may be a thing of the past. While people of Natchimo’s generation still suffer blindness from the impact of the disease, younger people in his community hardly know its name.

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