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Eradication of river blindness in Africa now possible - Sightsavers

Community volunteers in Kaduna State, Nigeria distribute the annual dose of Mectizan® to locals to prevent river blindness. Photo: ©Kate Holt/Sightsavers.River blindness in African countries can be eradicated within ten years according to an international charity working with the disease.

Simon Bush from Sightsavers spoke in Dublin in May to launch a new campaign against the disease, and said it is realistic to speak about eradication now that pharmaceutical companies like MSD are involved. Donations of expensive drugs have allowed NGOs and local health workers to target diseases more effectively than before.

According to Sightsavers around 37 million people are currently infected with river blindness including roughly 300,000 who are already irreversibly blind. Up to 140 million people in Africa are at risk of infection.

Speaking after the event, Mr Bush, director of Neglected Tropical Diseases, said: ‘The best option we have is this donated drug. MSD started the first donation programme, and it’s in its 26th year now.

“The pharma companies are donating the drugs. That is giving us a challenge as NGOs to say we have to get that drug to everyone who needs it.”

Along with Pfziers, MSD have focused their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme on donating drugs to fight Neglected Tropical Diseases. The WHO agree eradiction of these diseases is possible, and have run campaigns in Ghana and other parts of sub-saharan Africa.

Mr Bush said river blindness is easily treated, but the problem is funds and distribution.

“We are dealing with some people who are so poor, they are so poor they do no have the resources to distribute drugs which are free.

“We support the ministry of health (in each country) to make sure there is a supply-chain from the ports to bring these drugs hundreds and hundreds of miles,” he said.

But he said the key to the programme’s success is training local nurses and health workers in how to deliver the treatment.

He stressed while he was representing one NGO in Dublin, there is a wide range of local and international groups involved in the programme. In spite of this, he admits the campaign doesn’t yet have the prominence of campaigns against HIV/AIDS or malaria.

It’s an on-going issue in the aid world – there are only so many donor dollars to go around but the list of tragedies is endless.

“The message about river blindness and these diseases of neglect is they are not easy to understand. So many of these names are unpronounceable, that’s maybe half the problem of why they are neglected.

“They tend to be diseases that cause disability; they do not necessarily cause death instantly. We are talking long-term disabilities like blindness, leprosy, lymphedema – that’s known as elephantitis too,” he said.

So the Sightsavers campaign is as much about raising awareness as it is about distribution and making sure those donated drugs get where they are going.

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