October 03, 2015
1 min read

Coalition helps Americas near elimination of river blindness

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A coalition of organizations including the Carter Center, Pan American Health Organization/WHO, the CDC and Merck’s Mectizan Donation Program, are calling for the elimination of onchocerciasis, or river blindness, in the Western Hemisphere, according to a press release.

“Today, four of the six river blindness-endemic countries in the Americas have eliminated transmission of the disease, but I am not ready to celebrate until the task is complete,” former President Jimmy Carter, founder of The Carter Center, said in the release. “Now is not the time to be complacent. It is the time to increase our efforts.”

The Carter Center has led the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) for more than 2 decades, according to the release. Through the program’s efforts, the number of people at risk for onchocerciasis has been reduced from an estimated 500,000 to about 25,000.

In 2013 and 2014, WHO declared Colombia and Ecuador free of disease transmission. Mexico was the third country to have eliminated transmission in July. Guatemala recently submitted a request for verification, with a country visit slated for 2016. The last region with active transmission is the shared border of Brazil and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, a dense terrain of the Amazon rainforest and mountains.

Onchocerciasis is a parasitic disease that disproportionately affects low-income communities. The disease is transmitted to humans through bites from black flies that breed in fast-flowing freshwater. It can cause severe itching, skin damage, nodules, eye damage and blindness, according to the release.

The decreasing transmission rate is largely attributed to a biannual mass administration of the antiparasitic drug Mectizan (ivermectin, Merck). Merck provides the drug free of charge to affected communities through its Mectizan Donation Program that started in 1987.

The ministries of health of Brazil and Venezuela are working with The Carter Center/OEPA, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/WHO and other partners to meet the goal of eliminating onchocerciasis in the Americas by 2020.

“River blindness can be controlled and even eliminated when countries mobilize the necessary political will and receive strong support from international partners,” Carissa F. Etienne, MD, PAHO director, said in the release. “Today we are calling for renewed resolve in our joint efforts so we can finally rid our hemisphere of this disabling disease forever.”