Guatemala fourth country in Americas to eliminate ‘river blindness’
WHO and the Pan American Health Organization recently recognized Guatemala as the fourth country to officially be free of onchocerciasis, or “river blindness,” after 2 decades of elimination efforts.
“[Pan American Health Organization] PAHO congratulates Guatemala on this important achievement for regional and global public health,” Carissa F. Etienne, MD, director of PAHO said at the opening session of the annual meeting of the PAHO Directing Council in Washington, D.C.
Onchocerciasis, a parasitic disease caused by the filarial worm, can trigger blindness and disability and primarily afflicts poverty stricken people who inhabit areas dependent on agriculture.
In 1991, affected PAHO member countries pledged to eliminate onchocerciasis. Guatemala, once the most endemic country in the Americas, now joins Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico — who were granted verification of elimination between 2013 and 2015 — in successfully eradicating the disease.
“Elimination has been made possible by our country's strong commitment, the efforts of our health workers and volunteers, and the high level of participation and empowerment of affected communities,” Lucrecia Hernández Mack, the Guatemalan Minister of Health, said in a press release. “Health is a priority for all. So we will continue to work to eliminate other neglected infectious diseases affecting our most vulnerable population.”
PAHO/WHO’s commitment to ridding the disease has reduced the onchocerciasis-affected population in the Americas by 95%. Currently, the disease is only transmitted in this region among indigenous people living along the border of Brazil and Venezuela. Both countries have committed to eradicating onchocerciasis as soon as possible to free the Americas entirely of the disease.
Partners in this elimination effort included PAHO/WHO, the Carter Center’s Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas, as well and the Mectizan Donation Program from Merck.
“Guatemala deserves enormous credit for its 100-year struggle against river blindness. It was the great Guatemalan researcher, Dr. Rodolfo Robles, who discovered onchocerciasis in the Americas in 1915,” Jimmy Carter, former US President and founder of The Carter Center said. “Health workers, community educators and program leaders in Guatemala deserve the credit for their unrelenting work and determination to improve the health of future generations.” – by Alaina Tedesco