Colombia first nation to eradicate river blindness

October 28, 2013

Colombia is the first country in the world to eradicate onchocerciasis, commonly known as “river blindness,” by distributing an anti-parasitic drug in affected parts of the nation and educating local communities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The United Nations health agency officially announced the breakthrough against the disease during a July meeting in Bogota with the Colombian president, health officials and campaigners against river blindness.

The WHO launched a worldwide effort to eradicate river blindness as part of its decade-long Vision 2020 – The Right to Sight program to improve eye health around the globe.

Onchocerciasis is the second-leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide, according to WHO data.

It affects more than 18 million people around the world and caused more than 300,000 cases of blindness.

River blindness is caused when the roundworm Onchocerca volvulus is spread to humans by the bite of an infected black fly common in river areas. The parasite causes eye damage that can lead to skin disease and blindness.

The AOA formally supports the WHO Right to Sight program – including the onchocerciasis eradication initiative – under House of Delegates Resolution 1940 (Support of the World Health Organization Vision 2020 – The Right to Sight).

Recent National Optometry Hall of Fame Inductee William R. Baldwin, O.D., championed U.S.-based efforts to help fight the sight-threatening eye condition. Dr. Baldwin is a longtime dean of the University of Houston’s College of Optometry who after witnessing the devastating effects of the eye condition in Africa, established the River Blindness Foundation. He served as executive director and later chair of its board of directors.

The non-profit Carter Center, led by former President Jimmy Carter, plays a leading role in efforts to end the eye disease.

Since 1993, the Carter Center has led a campaign to eradicate river blindness in six Latin American countries—Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela—through its Onchocerciasis Elimination Programme of the Americas.

The campaign provided affected communities in Colombia with the medicine ivermectin to treat river blindness, also known by its registered-trademark name Mectizan, twice a year over 12 consecutive years. The drug, provided for free by the U.S. drugmaker Merck, kills the worm larvae that cause skin and eye damage.

Local health care workers, community volunteers and leaders played a key role in health education and distributing the drug.

Organizers believe river blindness will soon also be eradicated in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.

All three countries halted drug treatment in 2012 and began the three-year post treatment surveillance process required by WHO to verify elimination of the disease.

The WHO hopes progress made in Latin America against the disease will bolster efforts to eliminate river blindness in Africa, particularly in western and central Africa, where more than 120 million people are at risk and hundreds of thousands have been blinded by the condition.

For additional information, visit http://tinyurl.com/WHORiverblindness.

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