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.
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
Today marks the United Nations (UN) Day for South-South Cooperation — an opportunity for the global development community to examine how developing and emerging countries can share knowledge, exchange best practices and pursue joint projects to generate tangible solutions to development challenges.
As a young officer in the Ministry of Health of Argentina, I attended the first UN Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC) where I had the opportunity to witness the launching of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action, a blueprint adopted in 1978 that offered guidance and new energy to the concept of south-south cooperation. At the same time, the International Conference on Primary Health Care concluded with the Alma Ata Declaration — a public health milestone that recognized health as a fundamental human right.
It was an exciting time to be a part of these landmarks in public health and see how these principles are being carried out today. A closer look at Brazil and Venezuela’s joint commitment to controlling and eliminating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) within the Yanomami community —a nomadic indigenous tribe made up of approximately 35,000 people — spotlights the key role of south-south cooperation in reaching all populations in need of key health interventions. Equally important, this successful model can be replicated within the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region and across the globe.
The Yanomami territory is a remote stretch of tropical rainforests and mountains on the northern border of Brazil and southern part of Venezuela (approximately 19,000 people live on the Brazilian side and 16,000 on the Venezuelan side). The combined border area is over 9.6 million hectares — about twice the size of Switzerland — and represents the largest forested indigenous territory in the world. The entire community is affected or at risk for onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness.
The high prevalence of onchocerciasis within the Yanomami community represents the last stronghold of this disease in the LAC region, which has made significant strides towards its elimination, in addition to controlling many other NTDs. Several countries across the region have either launched or implemented national plans to control and eliminate NTDs within their borders. In 2014, Colombia became the first country in the world to eliminate onchocerciasis. These successes underscore the strong political commitments made by regional leaders including the Organization of American States (OAS), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA).
While these are impressive milestones, more work needs to be done to address NTDs within the Yanomami community — as the area occupied by the Yanomami is regarded as the greatest challenge for interrupting the transmission and making LAC an oncho- free region. Because of their nomadic habits plus their isolated and forested environment, health workers must travel by helicopter or boat to reach them. Many logistical and financial challenges need to be overcome to deliver the required series of treatments.
Here is how south-south cooperation can help address these challenges:
Brazil and Venezuela formalized and agreed to join efforts to tackle this problem in May 2014 during the 67th World Health Assembly. Through this commitment, these two countries will coordinate efficiently the provision of continuous integrated healthcare for affected communities in both Brazil and Venezuela. They will work together to train local community health workers and form bi-national humanitarian teams that will also include local residents to treat the last focus of onchocerciasis in the Americas through the development of integral healthcare to affected communities on both sides of the border.
Furthermore, these teams will support the creation of a bi-national health model to provide work assistance for Brazil and Venezuela. A technical team of the Brazilian Ministry of Health is working with the Venezuelan Ministry of Health team in order to strengthen and integrate public policy to eliminate onchocerciasis in the Yanomami area.
By harnessing their collective experiences and expertise, I am confident that these countries can successfully work together to end the unnecessary suffering of the Yanomami population — and ultimately help the LAC region see the end of onchocerciasis.
Looking ahead, the post-2015 development agenda dialogue, the BRICS Ministers of Health meeting and the UN South-South Cooperation EXPO offer exceptional opportunities for government officials and development partners to showcase south-south cooperation as a critical, sustainable and successful model to address NTDs and other pressing global health and development challenges.
 According to Health Ministry of Brazil, in 2012, the Yanomami territory had 293 small villages that contain 4,550 families from five different ethnic groups, most of them Yanomami. There were 21 thousand of indigenous people living in this region, which 11,600 were located in endemic area.
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!