The Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases would like to congratulate Colombia on becoming the first country in the Americas to eliminate onchocerciasis. This Monday, July 29, Colombia received verification of the elimination of onchocerciasis from the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a great achievement in the field of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and global health!
Onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, is an NTD caused by a parasitic worm and is transmitted by the bite of Simulium black flies. This NTD causes disfiguring and painful skin infections and eye lesions, and is the second leading infectious cause of blindness globally. Control and elimination efforts began in the region of the Americas in the early 1990s, primarily with the formation of the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA). OEPA, which is sponsored by the Carter Center, was launched in 1993 in response to the Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) resolution CD35.R14, which calls for the elimination of onchocerciasis from the Americas. At the time of the resolution, 500,000 people were at risk for onchocerciasis in the region and the NTD was endemic in 13 foci found in 6 countries: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.
The recent success in Colombia is a result of close collaboration between Colombia’s Ministry of Health and Social Protection, Colombia’s National Institute of Health and its partners, which include The Carter Center and OEPA, PAHO, Merck and many others. In countries endemic for onchocerciasis, people were treated with ivermectin (Mectizan) through mass drug administration campaigns two to four times a year. The hard work and dedication demonstrated by the local health workers and community leaders in distributing the treatment and educational information was essential for achieving the goal to eliminate transmission of the disease. Ivermectin is donated by Merck & Co through the Mectizan Donation Program.
Ecuador may be the next country in the region to apply for verification of elimination, following the 3-year post-treatment surveillance phase established by the World Health Organization (WHO). Guatemala and Mexico will complete the 3-year post-treatment surveillance phase in 2014 and could then request verification from the WHO. The remaining two foci in the region are in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, among the Yanomami indigenous community. A key to the elimination of onchocerciasis in the Yanomami area is an integration of activities to address other determinants of health and NTDs, such as strengthening primary care services, access to clean water and improved sanitation.
On the same day, energized by the announcement that Colombia received certification for the elimination of this NTD, the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Minister of Health and Social Protection Alejandro Gaviria demonstrated once more their government’s commitment to the people of Colombia by launching its 5-year integrated national plan of action to address trachoma and soil-transmitted helminthes.
Colombia’s experience can help guide the efforts of other Latin American and African countries working towards elimination of this and other NTDs. Thanks to these great achievements, we are closer to seeing the end of the seven most common NTDs by 2020!