GlobalPost Examines River Blindness in Sub-Saharan Africa
GlobalPost examined the challenges of combating onchocerciasis, more commonly known as river blindness, which affects about 37 million people worldwide, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. "It is nearly impossible for many African villagers to avoid the disease, which is transmitted by black flies that breed in the clean, fast-moving water used for drinking, bathing and washing clothes. The flies are the vector for parasitic worms that are transmitted to humans through fly bites," writes GlobalPost.
The millions of offspring produced by the worms in the body bring about constant itching, which can lead to prolonged sleeplessness. The latter of stages onchocerciasis can cause blindness. Although the disease is curable and drugs are available at no cost, it remains difficult to eradicate. Sungwa Ndagabewene, a medical doctor in the Southern Highlands region of Tanzania, called river blindness a "forgotten disease," adding, "It needs more attention and it is a disease which we can eliminate if we put more effort into it."
Merck's drug ivermectin effectively treats the disease, but it must be taken annually for the life of the adult worm about 15 years and "everyone in the village must take the drug - with the exception of small children, the very ill and pregnant and nursing women - or else the worms will continue to breed and can reinfect the population," writes GlobalPost.
Often people stop treatment after their symptoms disappear, David Mwakyusa, Tanzania's health minister, said. In addition, villagers are suspicious that the drugs are free, some believing the drug is part of a plot to sterilize them. Also younger generations often are not aware of the disease in the community, according to Uche Amazigo, head of the pan-African treatment program for the WHO.
Amazigo has developed a program that treats about 54 million people in 15 countries each year, and there has been a 30% reduction in the prevalence of infection, GlobalPost reports. WHO has struggled to get national governments to continue funding the programs when they are up and running, partly because the countries are also fighting diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (Loewenberg, GlobalPost, 5/1).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.