The world is making progress on eliminating lymphatic filariasis – yet we urgently need to finish the work

Roland Bougma, November 2023

A new report released by World Health Organization (WHO) shows that we’re making progress towards eliminating lymphatic filariasis – a painful and debilitating neglected tropical disease.

Lymphatic filariasis (LF) can cause severe swelling to body parts, intermittent fevers and secondary infections. Patients with the disease can also develop permanent disabilities. This can leave them unable to work and provide for their families which can expose them to poverty and stigma.

WHO’s report shows that in 2022 the number of people at risk from LF had reduced by 15% from the previous year (falling from 342 million in 2021 to 288 million in 2022).

Out of 72 countries that were originally recorded as endemic for the disease, 18 have so far managed to eliminate it as a public health problem. This is the result of a concerted global effort that has involved partners at many different levels – from the pharmaceutical firms Merck and Co., Inc (known as Merck Sharpe and Dohme, MSD, outside of the USA and Canada) and GlaxoSmithKline, who have donated millions of doses of medication to combat LF, right through to the health workers who have been distributing these drugs within their local communities.

I’m proud that Sightsavers has played a key role in tackling LF. We’re committed to being part of the global network that will achieve the elimination of the disease as a public health problem by 2030.

Together with our partners and community volunteers, we’ve supported governments to roll out drug treatment campaigns across several African countries. By teaching self-care techniques, we’ve also helped to prevent the painful symptoms of the disease from developing for tens of thousands of people. The two statistics below show the work that we’ve supported.

Salifat sits down with her right leg in a bowl. A health care worker stands next her pouring water on her leg from a teapot.

What is lymphatic filariasis?

Lymphatic filariasis is a serious disease, with millions of people globally at risk. It can cause a range of symptoms, but is often characterised by abnormal enlargement of body parts.

Learn about the disease
587 million
drug treatments distributed between 2011-2022
surgical operations performed between 2017-2022

Source: Sightsavers

Every treatment will have a positive ripple effect not just for the person affected, but also for their family and wider community. We can see this in the story of Salifat – a mother and grandmother with LF who has been receiving training to manage her condition.

On a global level, it’s rewarding to see that countries such as Malawi, Togo, Yemen and Egypt have confirmed the elimination of the disease. Other countries, such as Benin, Cameroon, Mali and Uganda, have now reduced disease transmission levels to a point where mass drug treatment campaigns are no longer necessary.

We’re also assisting national programmes to ensure that people with LF can receive treatment at the primary health care level. This can include providing surgery to correct cases of hydrocele, a painful swelling of the scrotum. It can also involve providing advice to patients with lymphoedema, a swelling of the arms or legs, on how to manage their condition and avoid secondary infections. We’re proud that Sightsavers has been able to support countries to develop these services.

However, we must not forget that there are still a quarter of a billion people who are still at risk from the harmful effects of LF. The disease has been shown to be the leading cause of permanent physical disability around the globe. Now is not the time for complacency; instead, we must intensify our collective efforts towards eliminating this disease.

Salifat smiles at the camera

Salifat’s experience

“Since receiving health training, I’m able to do things I was not able to do before. Even my walking has improved.”

Read Salifat’s story

Be a part of history by helping us to eliminate LF

It’s time for the global community to take a stand. We need endemic countries to set aside more resources for treating LF in their populations, and we need donors (large and small) to provide new funding. This will help to reach the last mile when it comes to wiping out the disease.

This funding could help to expand new drug treatment methods, such as triple drug therapy involving ivermectin, diethylcarbamazepine and albendazole, a combination that has shown promise in tackling the parasite that causes LF. It could also help in developing new diagnostic tools that identify LF cases more easily, and strengthening data and surveillance systems to help countries pick up on wider trends. Alongside this, we’re relying on pharmaceutical companies to maintain their generous drug donation programmes for as long as they’re needed.

If we don’t push to eliminate the disease as a public health problem globally at this point, we could risk throwing away all our hard work up until now, as the disease will return to areas where it had previously vanished.

Be a part of history by supporting our work on tackling and eliminating LF around the world.


Roland Bougma is Sightsavers’ regional technical adviser for lymphatic filariasis.


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