Listen to the stories below, tweet your questions to #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 Kwames 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.
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.
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.
I cant 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 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
In a fight between the world’s worst diseases and the human population, there are those that dream of a world free of diseases and poverty. Lifelines, a global health television series produced by Al Jazeera with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, highlights the efforts of global health workers and professionals who are vigorously working to end neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
Lifelines’ “Schisosomiasis is a water-borne parasite that affects 240 million people in mostly Sub-Saharan Africa and is linked to deadly chronic diseases such as cancer and organ failure.
Lifelines also covered the innovative work of Alassane Ndiaye and Elizabeth Huttinger who are working together on “Project Crevette,” a novel experiment to restore prawns — natural predators of the disease carrying snails — in the lower Senegal River basin to control the spread of schistosomiasis. They plan on convincing political leaders responsible for the Diama dam to build a fish ladder in the dam to allow prawns to maintain their migration upstream where the snails harboring schistosomiasis are heavily populated.
Lifelines also highlighted blinding trachoma and river blindness (onchocerciasis) in the “The End is in Sight” documentary. In Part One of “Trachoma is an infectious bacterial disease of the eye that blinds approximately half a million people annually. The documentary follows Aba Wolde, an 85-year old citizen of the Amhara region, and his daughter, Amalda. They both have advanced trachoma and must walk over 20 kilometers to a health clinic to receive surgical treatment.
Part Two of “River blindness is transmitted by infected black flies and causes severe itching and visual impairment. In 1987, Merck declared that they would donate a medication called Mectizan to treat river blindness for as long as needed through the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP). In Uganda, where about 3.5 million people are infected with river blindness, Dr. Moses Katabarwa introduced an innovative administrative system of mobilizing, educating and providing communities in endemic areas with Mectizan. This approach of mass drug administration (MDA), along with environmental control measures for controlling fly larvae, has produced successful results for eliminating river blindness in multiple regions in Uganda.
Whether you’re an expert in the field of NTDs or someone who is curious to learn more about diseases that keep communities in poverty, we highly recommend that you watch these impactful stories from Aljazeera’s ‘Lifelines’ series.