Emory Report
February 20, 2006
Volume 58, Number 20


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February 20, 2006
Ridding the New World of river blindness

Emily Staub and Meryl Bailey comprise the health team in The Carter Center Office of Public Information.

In her one-room house in Brasil, Mexico, Pitasia González weeps into her hands as she recounts how onchocerciasis left her blind and unable to care for herself.

“My daughters must cook my meals, clean the house and help me dress,” said González, 78. Once a capable provider for her family, she now must depend on her two daughters to manage her household in addition to caring for their own. However, she has strong hope that her grandchildren will be spared the same fate. “I’m glad my grandchildren take the Mectizan.”

Onchocerciasis, commonly called river blindness, is a parasitic disease spread by the bite of small black flies. The small, thread-like parasites cause an infected person to suffer intense itching, skin discoloration and rashes. Once inside the eye, the parasite can damage eyesight and cause blindness, leaving sufferers unable to work, harvest crops or care for their children.

Fortunately, there is reason to hope that González’s grandchildren—and some 500,000 other people at risk for the disease in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela—will never suffer from it. The Carter Center, working with the ministries of health through the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA), is trying to stem the spread of river blindness in the region. This goal is being achieved through health education and semiannual Mectizan drug treatments donated by Merck & Co.

“Onchocerciasis only remains in 13 pockets in six endemic countries,” said Mauricio Sauerbrey, OEPA director. “In nearly half of these 13 areas, we see evidence that transmission has been interrupted already. These are very exciting times. In the past, people living in endemic villages suffered from severe eye and skin lesions caused by onchocerciasis, but today their quality of life has greatly improved.”

Earlier this year, the mission to halt river blindness in the Americas by 2007 accelerated with the completion of a $15 million challenge grant to The Carter Center.

In 2003, the center’s river blindness program estimated it would take approximately $15 million to eliminate the disease from the region by the end of this decade. To meet this goal, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made an initial $5 million contribution and challenged other donors to provide up to an additional $5 million, which the Gates Foundation would match. With support from the Lions Clubs International Foundation, Merck and more than 70 other donors, the matching funds were raised four years ahead of the challenge grant deadline.

Since 1996, The Carter Center has partnered with the national ministries of health, Lions Clubs International, Merck, the Pan American Health Organization and the CDC to deliver more than 70 million treatments of Mectizan in 11 countries in Africa and Latin America.

With the completion of the center’s challenge grant and OEP’s continued focus on health education programs and increased drug treatment, it is likely González could be among the last people in the Western Hemisphere to be blinded by the disease.