Emory Report
November 29, 2004
Volume 57, Number 13


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November 29, 2004
Lions donation helps fight river blindness

danny martyn is a fall 2004 carter center intern

On Nov. 15, former President Jimmy Carter announced a $2 million gift from the Lions Clubs International Foundation to accelerate the Carter Center’s efforts to eliminate river blindness (onchocerciasis) in the Americas.

The contribution will be matched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a challenge grant to help the center secure a total of $15 million to halt transmission of the disease throughout the region.

“With the support and commitment of hundreds of thousands of Lions who strive to alleviate the unnecessary suffering caused by eye diseases, the Carter Center and its partners are poised to win the fight against river blindness in the Western Hemisphere,” said Carter, a Lion himself, during the closing session for the 14th annual InterAmerican Conference on Onchocerciasis, titled “Mobilizing for Success.”

Lions Clubs International Foundation not only offers grants to fight river blindness but also provides a volunteer army to distribute the drug that prevents this disease. Through the foundation’s SightFirst program the Lions have granted the Carter Center more than $20 million to fight river blindness in Latin America and Africa, as well as $5.5 million to other nonprofit organizations combating the disease.

“Lions have been ‘Knights of the Blind’ for nearly 80 years. We are overjoyed that, in cooperation with the Carter Center, we’ve been able to save the sight of millions of people,” said Tae-Sup Lee of Seoul, South Korea, 2004–05 chairperson of Lions Clubs International Foundation.

River blindness is spread by the bite of small black flies that breed in rapidly flowing streams. The parasites, which are small, thread-like worms, cause intense itching, skin discoloration and rashes. When they enter the eyes, the worms can damage eyesight and potentially can blind their victims. In endemic countries, the disruption in family life and education directly affects the local economies and long-term development.

In the Western Hemisphere, at least 500,000 people are at risk for river blindness, and some 180,000 are infected in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.

In 2001, the Carter Center’s International Task Force for Disease Eradication confirmed river blindness could be eradicated from the Americas. Since 2003, the six endemic countries have maintained the required 85 percent coverage of semiannual doses of Mectizan. This treatment must be sustained to halt transmission by the end of the decade.

“Diverse populations and ecosystems mean each country is affected by onchocerciasis differently,” explained Mauricio Sauerbrey, director of the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas. “In Guatemala and Mexico, the populations living on coffee plantations are most at risk, while in Ecuador and Colombia, the disease affects those populations living by the rivers’ shores, primarily people of African and indigenous descent.

“The nomadic Yanomami people, living in Brazil and Venezuela, are one of the most severely affected populations, as their travel throughout the Amazon rain forest places them at continuous risk for exposure,” Sauerbrey continued. “What unites them is the desire to rid their communities of this horrible disease.”

Learn more about river blindness by visiting www.cartercenter.org.