International blindness charity Sightsavers has just treated its 150 millionth person against tropical disease river blindness.
As the biggest cause of blindness in Africa, it is estimated that as many as one million people are blind or have had their sight badly damaged by river blindness.
The disease is spread by a small black fly that lives by fast-flowing rivers. When someone gets bitten by the fly, its larvae spread around the body causing itching. If the larvae get into the eye and then die, the body’s reaction causes inflammation and blindness.
About 35 million people are currently infected with river blindness, according to figures from the charity, and roughly 300,000 of them are already irreversibly blind. It tends to affect people in their 30s and 40s, meaning that many children miss out on education because they have to act as full-time carers to older relatives.
But the disease can be prevented by taking just one dose of the drug, ivermectin every year at the cost of about 5p per person.
Drug company Merck has been donating the treatment for the charity to hand out since 1987. “This amazing milestone is an opportunity to thank Sightsavers for the support and commitment it has provided to the programme,” said Merck’s managing director, Deepak Khanna. “As a result of this partnership, the sight of millions of people in some of the most disadvantaged countries is being protected and the programme is recognised as a model of a successful and sustainable developing world health initiative."
One of the main challenges in fighting the disease is getting the treatment out to cut-off communities. Sightsavers has helped set up a distribution system where volunteers hand out drugs through community activities and education projects. Under the system, trained village volunteers measure villagers with a colour-marked stick to find out the right dosage.
New evidence from the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control has found that transmission of the disease can be stopped and the cycle of infection broken if the drug is taken every year for 15-17 years. This suggests that River Blindness could be wiped out in the future.
“River blindness is a disease that could – and should – be consigned to medical history just like Smallpox,” said Sightsavers’ Caroline Harper. “Together with our local partners, other international organisations and the immeasurable support of Merck, we’ve come a long way since we started distributing Mectizan 23 years ago, but we still have more to do to help eliminate river blindness as a public health threat,” she told Optometry Today.