Onchocerciasis, also known as “river blindness” is a parasitic infection that occurs through the bite of a black fly, which is found near swiftly flowing rivers. A worm parasite enters the human bond and produces thousands of larval worms that migrate in the skin and eye. When the worms die, they are toxic to the skin and eyes, causing extreme itching and eye lesions; after long-term exposure, these lesions may lead to low-vision or irreversible blindness, as well as disfiguring skin diseases. River blindness is at epidemic levels in Central, Eash and West Africa, parts of Latin America, and the Middle Eastern country of Yemon.
Nearly 37 million people are infected with river blindness, of which approximately 300,000 have been blinded or visually injured. Approximately 100 million people in Africa and Latin America are at risk of contracting the disease.
The effect of river blindness beyond sight loss has been devastating; because the black flies breed in fast water where the most fertile land is located – many people have had to abandon their houses and land in the fertile river valleys. This has caused not only the uprooting of homes but also greatly damaged the economic productivity of many villages in some of the poorest areas in the world.
River blindness is easily controlled with one annual or a bi-annual dose of ivermectin, a drug manufactured by Merck and Company. This drug kills the parasite’s larvae in the human body, preventing river blindness and transmission of the disease to others. Merck has committed to donating the medicine free of charge until the disease is eradicated.
Since 1993, Lions Clubs Internation Foundation (LCIF) has awarded US $33 million to support the distribution of river blindness medicine to approximately 251 million people in 15 African and Latin American countries. Sight First facilitated the training of 682,000 community volunteers to distribute the medication. Working with the African Program to control and eliminate river blindness, the partnership is critical to our efforts to ensure that river blindness is no longer a public health problem.
Through the cooperation of several nations and world organizations are showing success. Columbia and Ecuador were the first two nations in the world to have halted river blindness entirely through prevention, treatment, and health education. In Africa, studies have shown evidence of elimination in some areas. These steps toward halting river blindness are not only preventing blindness but also enabling people to return to the land and revive their local economics.