West Africa free of devastating 'river blindness' disease, UN health agency reports

West Africa free of devastating 'river blindness' disease, UN health agency reports

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After nearly 30 years of work to eliminate river blindness as a public health threat in West Africa, the region will officially be declared free of the debilitating disease on Friday, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) announced today.

In a statement released in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the agency paid tribute to the many who have worked to ensure that 18 million people have grown up free of the threat of river blindness. Thanks to the eradication effort, thousands of farmers are now moving to reclaim 25 million hectares of fertile river land that WHO said could generate food for 17 million people.

"The accomplishments of this programme inspire all of us in public health to dream big dreams because we can reach 'impossible' goals and lighten the burden of millions of the world's poorest people," said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The WHO chief added that the success would serve as a model for future efforts. "When critics say that the next proposal is too ambitious, that it will be too expensive, it will take too long, that funds will be wasted, that the job will be too complicated or dangerous - tell these critics to remember this day," she said.

River blindness occurs when black flies inject parasites into people living near rivers. In hundreds of thousands of infected people, parasites ate away their hosts' eyesight.

When the campaign began in West Africa, up to 10 per cent of the population in high impact regions were completely blind and 30 per cent had severe visual handicaps. People in West Africa recognized that something associated with the rivers was causing blindness and farmers began leaving their fields. One study in the early 1970s documented that 250,000 square kilometres of once-productive river valley had been abandoned - the equivalent of an annual economic loss of $30 million, according to WHO.

The eradication effort involved eliminating the black fly through aerial spraying of larvicide. It received a boost in 1988 when the pharmaceutical company Merck offered its anti-parasite drug ivermectin free of cost.