Turning the tide on river blindness

How communities are being engaged to help treat the parasitic illness that can lead to permanent loss of vision.

Last Modified: 01 Oct 2013 09:01
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Doctors in Uganda are using innovative methods of medicine distribution to treat river blindness - by training members of clans and communities to spread the word.

River blindness, or onchocerciasis, is a parasitic illness that causes itching, eye disease and can lead to permanent blindness and affects over 18 million people worldwide.

It is transferred to humans by a small black fly that breed in fast flowing rivers that are well oxygenated.

River blindness is a disease of the poor. Where the road ended is where you began seeing river blindness cases.

Dr Moses Katabarwa, Senior Epidemiologist, Carter Center

The main culprit is the female fly, which looks for blood for the development of her eggs. So when it bites a person who has the disease, it can then go on to pass on the infection by biting another person who may not have the disease.

Dr Moses Katabarwa, a senior epidemiologist at the Carter Center, says that the real challenge was getting the breakthrough drug Mectizan, which can treat the disease with just one dose a year, to these communities.

"River blindness is a disease of the poor," he said. "Where the road ended is where you began seeing river blindness cases. The areas where you find these people are actually fertile, well-watered, fast running clean water, not polluted."

Katabarwa proposed a solution - start training these communities and request them to select their own distributors.

However, Katabarwa faced opposition from the Ugandan Ministry of Health, which argued that it was dangerous to make Mectizan accessible to civilians.

So the World Health Organisation (WHO) was called in to test this system. Final results showed that clans or extended families were able to treat 100 percent of their members in just two days.

Foot soldiers across Africa and South America, with help from Merck, the company behind Mectizan, and its partners, have distributed one billion treatments of Mectizan and are turning the tide on river blindness.

Lifelines: The Quest for Global Health will air on Al Jazeera in 2014.


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About LifeLines
Lifelines: The Quest For Global Health
is Al Jazeera's new cross-platform project profiling the extraordinary work of global health workers as they tackle eight deadly diseases and conditions that afflict vulnerable communities across the globe. These good news stories stretch from the Philippines to Pakistan, Uganda to South Sudan, India to Senegal, featuring the people who are working to prevent, control or eradicate malaria, rabies, polio, leprosy, schistosomiasis, Guinea worm, river blindness, trachoma and maternal and neonatal mortality. Online, on screen and on the ground in affected communities, we will share their uplifting stories in Lifelines: The Quest For Global Health.
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Lifelines will focus month by month on each condition here on our website and in 2014 will premiere an eight-part
documentary series on Al Jazeera English.