DENVER — River blindness is a disease that effects 17.7 million around the world and, as the name suggests, often results in blindness. The disease starts in a tiny worm called onchocerca volvulus, which infects a black fly and is then spread when the fly bites a human. These flies reside in rivers in primarily tropical areas, with 99 percent of the cases in Africa and the remainder in regions of South America.
River blindness manifests as a variety of symptoms including dermatitis, eye lesions, subcutaneous nodules and often, blindness. There is no cure for river blindness, but since 1974, preventative measures, like insecticide treated nets that ward off the black fly, have been effective in preventing cases of blindness. Without an effective treatment, however, the worms can live for between 10 and 15 years.
However, some drugs have proved effective in alleviating this issue. In 1987, Merck, a large pharmaceutical company, made the promise to donate drugs that would help contain the spread of river blindness. This pledge has been extremely important in controlling the disease. Ivermectin is one particular drug that has been administered to control river blindness by working to reduce the number of worms, minimizing the ultimate damage of the infection.
More progress is necessary as millions of people live with river blindness, particularly in impoverished areas where they are the least equipped to deal with illness. According to the World Health Organization, “About 120 million people are still at risk of contracting the disease, 38 million of whom are already infected.”
In response to the lack of results and the lack of action in the worldwide approach to river blindness, Jim Kim, the president of the World Bank, along with health experts and representatives from other governments, recently gathered together to address how to best proceed in regards to treating and eliminating river blindness, along with other neglected tropical diseases.
Simon Bush, the director of SightSavers, an organization that fights worldwide blindness, spoke about what would be discussed at the meeting and focused on what the future holds for river blindness. He explained, “To ensure elimination we need to scale up programs and integrate with other health interventions.” Everyone involved is aware that success won’t be easy, but a concerted effort by various health organizations to educate and spread awareness is a big step toward preventing river blindness.
Since this disease effects so many people in areas that are struggling economically, it often sets those communities even farther back on the road to development. As river blindness spreads, it makes day-to-day life challenging for people, which can often serve to destabilize a community. In tropical areas that are susceptible to the black fly that carries river blindness, there is a high demand for prevention, treatment and support in order to help the country thrive and develop.
As brainstorming and discussion commence, the World Bank and other healthcare institutes hope to design a more effective approach to river blindness. With this continued progress, there is hope of controlling river blindness so that it effects as few people as possible.