LAGUNA BEACH, California — Onchocerciasis, an eye and skin disease that can lead to permanent blindness, affects 18 million people globally. The disease is transmitted by the blackfly, which lives and breeds specifically in fast-flowing rivers and streams; hence the disease’s commonly used name: river blindness. The people who are most susceptible to river blindness live in poor, rural communities in developing countries near rivers and streams, lacking access to adequate resources to test and prevent the disease. However, researchers have announced a new rapid test that could potentially stop river blindness for good.
River blindness is caused by a worm that is transmitted to humans through the bite of the blackfly. The adult female worm produces thousands of larval worms, which migrate around the skin and eye areas in humans. Larvae continue to grow under the skin, causing lesions, as well as severe itching and painful irritation. Repeated exposure to the parasite—and the lesions it causes—can lead to permanent blindness and skin disfiguration. The parasite can be traced to more than 100,000 communities across 31 African countries.
To date, current methods for testing and treating the disease have, for the most part, remained unsuccessful: 120 million people worldwide remain at risk of contracting the disease. A medicine called ivermectin has proven successful at killing the offspring of the parasitic worms in humans and is made available by local agencies and volunteers in infected communities. The African Program for Onchocerciasis has worked tirelessly to identify infected communities and mobilize treatment efforts for over 20 years.
However, treatment isn’t the issue at hand when it comes to river blindness. Rather, the larger challenge for health officials to know when to start and stop treating infected communities because of the diagnostic testing that is available for the disease. Current tests for river blindness require sending blood samples to a lab, where highly trained technicians evaluate the samples; it’s a time-consuming, and very expensive process. And the alternative is almost worse: an invasive skin snip that, though it provides results within 23 hours, commonly leads to infection, in turn detering people from taking it.
PATH—an international nonprofit organization that works to deliver innovative solutions to global health issues—announced last week the launch of a new, rapid test for river blindness. The SD BIOLINE Onchocerciasis Ig G4 diagnostic test will offer faster, effective and reliable testing, and it’s far easier for health officials and volunteers to use. The test was designed specifically for use in the rural, low-income settings where the disease poses the most serious threats. The test requires just a small droplet of blood from a fingerprick and can provide results within 20 minutes.
The breakthrough test is not only easy to use, rapid and effective, but also affordable, which means one crucial thing: it will be available to those communities who need it most. Effectively diagnosing and treating river blindness will make a significant difference for both the health and economic development of poor, rural communities worldwide. Eradicating river blindness is one step toward the elimination of infectious diseases that plague communities in developing countries and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
– Elizabeth Nutt