Onchocerciasis (more commonly known as River Blindness) is one of the biggest causes of blindness in Africa, yet the continent’s continued struggle against the neglected tropical disease (NTD) goes largely unnoticed.
However, the growth of the ailment is being stunted through work by the development NGO Sightsavers. It claims to have already distributed 150million of treatments and in the last year has apparently distributed 25 million in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mali and Nigeria, ensuring that people can continue to live in their river-side communities.
Although the disease threatens people worldwide 99 per cent of those at risk live in Africa, particularly in the West.
Pharmaceutical Merck & Co., Inc. has been donating Mectizan since 1987 and has been working in partnership with Sightsavers for over 20 years to ensure that the treatment reaches the populations at risk of developing River Blindness.
Transmitted through the bite of the black simulium fly which breeds in fast-flowing water, river blindness can lead to permanent loss of vision. The onset of river blindness tends to affect people in their thirties and forties, which not only impairs them but also their children who often have to miss out on education to become full-time carers for their older relatives.
New evidence from the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) has found that transmission of the disease can be stopped and the cycle of infection broken if Mectizan (ivermectin) is taken annually for 15-17 years. This is promising evidence that indicates that River Blindness could be eliminated in the future. In the interim, the drugs donated free of charge by Merck & Co., Inc. allow the disease to be treated and controlled.
Deepak Khanna, Managing Director of Merck Sharp & Dohme Limited (MSD) commented that: ‘the Program is recognised as a model of a successful and sustainable developing world health initiative’.
One of the main challenges in fighting this disease is getting the treatment to remote communities. Sightsavers has helped to introduce the community-based distribution system which uses trained village volunteers to hand out the drugs at a local level. This approach has been adapted to other healthcare activities all over Africa such as Vitamin A distribution, mosquito net distribution, cataract identification, and management of other parasitic diseases.
Nigeria is the nation that suffers most from this NTD, with approximately 27 million needing treatment. In Kaduna state everyone understands the importance of taking the drug annually.
The NTD department of the World Health Organisation identifies 13 NTDs that are believed to affect up to a billion of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. Together, these NTDs cause severe disability, which results in billions of dollars of lost productivity. Treating such diseases is therefore a way in which poverty can be alleviated in some of the world’s poorest communities. Merck & Co., Ltd have already made leaps and bounds in making this happen and have brought to the world stage ailments that are little catered for in the current day.
Let’s hope their care and good work spreads to enable Africans to work toward a better future for themselves.