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What is lymphatic filariasis?

Lymphatic filariasis is the world’s leading cause of physical disability. It is often characterised by the abnormal enlargement of body parts.

Christiana Solomon has lymphatic filariasis. She lives in Lokoja, Nigeria, with her family.

The disease is transmitted via mosquito bite, usually during childhood, and affects the lymphatic system in later life, causing painful disability and disfigurement.

It is one of a group of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Once a person is infected, adult worms lodge in the body’s lymphatic vessels and disrupt the normal function of the lymphatic system. The worms can live for six to eight years, and during their lifetime they produce millions of tiny larvae that circulate in the infected person’s blood and can be transmitted by mosquito bite.

The debilitating symptoms of the disease, which often occur in mid to later life, mean many people are unable to work and children miss out on school to care for family members. As well as causing physical disability and disfigurement, the associated stigma can have a devastating impact on those affected, as well as their families and communities.

120 million
people worldwide are infected with LF
40 million
people are incapacitated by the disease
947 million
people are currently at risk of LF

How is lymphatic filariasis treated?

A girl in Kenya receives her medication to protect against river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

Medication

To stop the spread of infection, a combined dose of two medicines is given every year to the entire population of areas at risk.

A drug distributor gives out medication to protect against river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

Volunteers

Medication is distributed via volunteers known as community-directed distributors (CDDs), who work locally in their own communities.

Ibrahim Hassan from Nigeria, who suffers from lymphatic filariasis.

Medical care

Although people suffering from advanced lymphatic filariasis cannot be cured, the symptoms can be eased through surgery and care.

What we’re doing

Sightsavers is fighting hard to eliminate lymphatic filariasis in the countries in which we work by 2020.

While river blindness is transmitted by the black fly and lymphatic filariasis by the mosquito, both diseases are caused by an infection of a filarial worm and often occur in the same places. Where they are co-endemic, Sightsavers coordinates treatments for these two diseases using Mectizan® tablets, donated by pharmaceutical company Merck Sharpe & Dohme (MSD), and albendazole tablets, donated by GlaxoSmithKline.

In countries where river blindness in not co-endemic, lymphatic filariasis is treated using diethylcarbamazine, produced by Eisai, and albendazole tablets, donated by GlaxoSmithKline.

In 2016, we provided more than 60 million treatments for LF worldwide. We also trained more than 235,000 volunteers (known as community-directed distributors) who distribute medication to people at risk.

Although people suffering from advanced LF cannot be cured, the symptoms can be eased through surgery and care. Sightsavers works with WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) organisations to help households access clean water and facilities, so people can clean their affected limbs and care for their skin with clean water and soap. Symptoms can also be helped by elevating limbs and by wearing footwear.

Find out about other diseases we treat

Neglected tropical diseases

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