Category Archives: Onchocerciasis

Tune in for a Live Chat on River Blindness

On Friday, January 22 from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. ET, NPR’s global development and health blog, Goats and Soda, will host a Twitter chat on river blindness with Dr. Neeraj Mistry, managing director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases. The chat follows two stories about river blindness from NPR correspondent Jason Beaubien.tweetchat

Listen to the stories below, tweet your questions to @NPRGoatsandSoda with the hashtag #RiverBlindness, and tune in on January 22nd to participate in the discussion.

60-year-old Emmanuel Kwame first started to get sick with onchocerciasis, commonly known as river blindness, when he was in his 20s. His hometown of Asubende in central Ghana was hard hit by the disease. Of Kwame’s 12 siblings, six lost their eyesight. Read more.

Bondi Sanbark, the chief in Beposo 2, Ghana, says his village used to be full of blind men led around by boys — but that began to change after the Nobel prize-winning drug, Ivermectin, started being distributed.

Mass ivermectin campaigns are now treating roughly 4 million Ghanaians a year, or more than 15 percent of the population. And the strategy is paying off. No one has gone blind in Beposo 2 for years, says Sanbark. Read more.

Nobel Honors for Medicine Elevate NTD Elimination to the Next Level

by Baroness Helene Hayman

In an age when sophisticated medical breakthroughs routinely redefine what we once thought was possible, a humble set of pills serves as a reminder that low-tech heath interventions can have a massive impact on much of the world’s population, particularly those living in extreme poverty.

Nearly 40 years ago, William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura found that a drug used to treat parasites in animals could be adapted to treat people for two devastating parasitic diseases, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), ultimately resulting in the creation of the drug ivermectin. For their achievements, Drs. Campbell and Ōmura shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with another groundbreaking researcher, Tu Youyou, who discovered the first drug treatment for malaria.

Ivermectin has since become part of an array of safe and effective drugs that treat a range of parasitic and bacterial diseases, commonly known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which also include hookworm, ascariasis, trichuriasis, schistosomiasis and trachoma.

Today, we are on the cusp of controlling and eliminating several NTDs in countries around the world using these simple, low-cost drugs, which are being donated by the billions from pharmaceutical companies.

The United States and the United Kingdom have demonstrated remarkable leadership and commitment to the fight against NTDs through the support of the 2012 London Declaration, which calls for the control or elimination of ten NTDs by 2020. Germany put neglected and poverty-related diseases in the spotlight by including them as a key discussion item at this year’s G7 Summit. And the recent announcement of the Ross Fund — a £1 billion fund for malaria and other infectious diseases, including NTDs, created by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — is another step in the right direction.

Reaching the 2020 control and elimination targets for NTDs set by the World Health Organization would be one of the greatest public health victories of our time, but we are at risk of letting this potential triumph slip through our fingers if urgent action is not taken for more countries to join the United States, United Kingdom and Germany in supporting global NTD programs.

It comes down to this: governments — of both donor and endemic countries — must dedicate more funding to ensure that donated drugs reach at-risk communities on a timely and consistent basis. Given the links that NTDs have with HIV/AIDS and malaria, now is the time to have a sensible discussion about including NTDs as part of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The best news is that, largely due to the generosity of the pharmaceutical companies, the gap for funding global NTD programs is remarkably small — estimated at only $US220 million per year for the next five years. In a time of economic austerity, investing in this global health bargain would deliver transformative results, ridding a billion people of the daily burden of preventable parasitic diseases while providing real hope for significant improvements in economic development and equity.

Baroness Helene Hayman is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and NTDs, and a Trustee of Sabin Foundation Europe.

Nobel Prize Awarded to Scientists Who Discovered NTD Medicine


Rabi, who suffers from LF, and his children, Sanjay and Mamali, in Ganjam District, Odisha, India. Photo: Naveen Pun / Global Network for NTDs

Today the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to two scientists for the discovery of a drug that treats two common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

William Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura were honored for their work developing a new class of anti-parasitic drugs. The prize was shared with Tu Youyou for her discovery of a new malaria drug. The Nobel committee noted, “The global impact of their discoveries and the resulting benefit to mankind are immeasurable.”

Ōmura isolated a promising soil bacteria he found in a Japanese golf course, from which William C. Campbell discovered a component that proved remarkably effective against parasites. The component, named Avermectin, was subsequently chemically modified to be even more effective and called Ivermectin.

Her grand-daughter Adamsay Turay, 8, helps Lucy Bangura, walk in the town of Masongbo, Sierra Leone on Thursday July 12, 2012.

Her grand-daughter Adamsay Turay, 8, helps Lucy Bangura walk in the town of Masongbo, Sierra Leone on Thursday July 12, 2012. Photo: Oliver Asselin / Global Network for NTDs

Great progress has been made through annual mass treatment with the drug. Last year, more than 270 million treatments were donated to people in impoverished communities to treat onchocerciasis (also known as river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (or elephantiasis). Some areas are now close to interrupting transmission and eliminating these two devastating NTDs which lead to blindness and debilitating swelling.

We celebrate the scientific discovery that made this possible and honor and applaud the efforts of all those who contribute to the fight against NTDs — from the companies that donate the medicine and the community volunteers who distribute it to the donors who sustain these programs.

After the discovery of the bacterial compound, it took decades to mass produce and secure the donation of Ivermectin. But in the next five years we can protect millions from onchocerciasis and eliminate lymphatic filariasis around the world by ensuring those in need have access to this Nobel Prize-winning drug.

TAKE ACTION: Please donate now to help us raise awareness, funding and political commitments to make sure NTD medications reach those in need.

Adiós! Goodbye, oncho! Mexico joins two other countries in ending onchocerciasis in LAC

Mission to verify the elimination of onchocerciasis in Ecuador. PAHO/WHO, 2014

Mission to verify the elimination of onchocerciasis in Ecuador. PAHO/WHO, 2014

I can’t wait to spread the news. The Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) region is one step closer to seeing the end of onchocerciasis (also referred to as river blindness): Mexico has become the third country in the world to officially wipe out this disease!

The drive for progress is much of what motivated me during my time as the Director of the Pan American Health Organization, the WHO Regional Office for the Americas. I am excited to continue celebrating these milestones as Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) Special Envoy, and a life-long advocate for public health.

Earlier this year, I wrote about 7 achievable victories in the fight against NTDs that I hope to see accomplished in 2015. Many of these wishes are coming true.

This week, I am filled with the joyful sense of pride in the accomplishment of Mexico and its partners as I check off Mexico’s certification of onchocerciasis elimination from my wish list. Mexico’s success builds off of Colombia and Ecuador’s certification in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and gives me even more confidence that we will soon see news of a LAC region completely free of onchocerciasis.

Onchocerciasis is a devastatingly debilitating parasitic disease that causes itchiness, rashes, and eye problems, eventually leading to permanent blindness. The parasite is transmitted to humans by the bite of a black fly, which breeds in fast moving rivers, increasing the risk of blindness in nearby communities. What’s more, the disease causes a terrible ripple effect by pulling kids out of school to care for their blind elders, reducing economic productivity, and causing families to move out of fertile river valleys, decreasing agricultural outputs in already impoverished areas.

This momentous occasion moves the LAC region one step closer to eliminating the disease entirely—Guatemala has already submitted a request to WHO to verify elimination, and I hope to soon see more results from the enormous, highly coordinated, south-south cooperative effort between Brazil and Venezuela to stop transmission in the Yanomami communities along their borders.

We should all celebrate this official announcement, and we must particularly congratulate Mexico and the many partners that have been working to control this problem for decades and moved toward accomplishing elimination with new tools and new partners for the last fifteen years. 

Eliminating this disease requires unwavering determination. The first step in the elimination process is at least two years of mass drug administration, in which entire communities who are at risk of onchocerciasis are administered Mectizan (ivermectin) every six months. Merck has made an unprecedented pledge to donate Mectizan to everyone in need, for as long as needed. President Jimmy Carter and the Carter´s Center program (OEPA – Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas) have been instrumental, joining PAHO/WHO as well as the communities and health workers in a successful dream team. You can see President Carter’s video message here, congratulating partners for their hard-earned accomplishments.

Once large-scale programs are complete, treatments are delivered to individuals on an as-needed basis. Communities are monitored for an additional twelve years to make sure that transmission of this disease has been interrupted. Finally, after treatment and monitoring, countries stop the treatment intervention and watch for three years to ensure that there is no resurgence in transmission, and then apply for WHO certification that elimination has been achieved.

I was thrilled to be able to celebrate the long-term dedication and resulting accomplishment of all partners contributing to this milestone at an event at PAHO Headquarters last week. Health Ministers from the countries that have eliminated or will soon eliminate river blindness, technical advisors, and global policy leaders were specially recognized for the recent successes and spur motivation to run the race through the last mile all around the world. I was particularly moved when Dr. Etienne, Director of PAHO/WHO, invited me to share the frontline when she received the award. The outstanding accomplishment of the countries in the Americas comes at an excellent time, now that NTDs are officially identified in the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. The LAC region has hit the ground running.

Dr. Mirta Roses Periago is the Director Emeritus of PAHO/WHO and a Special Envoy for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases