It was clear we needed a different approach. So we carried out research to understand why river blindness is persisting, despite our best efforts to tackle it.
We used the findings to design and evaluate a new strategy to help efforts to eliminate river blindness in the region.
River blindness is a parasitic infection transmitted by flies that breed near fast-flowing water. If left untreated, the infection can lead to irreversible blindness.
Since 1996, everyone over the age of five in the West Region of Cameroon has been given a yearly dose of medication called ivermectin to treat and prevent river blindness.
The medication is distributed by local community volunteers, who use a dose pole to measure people’s height to determine the amount of medication they need. This technique of delivering preventative medication to large groups of people at once, known as mass drug administration, can eliminate river blindness when carried out over many years.
But in 2015, in one village in the region, 37 per cent of adults still tested positive for the river blindness infection. We needed to find out why.
We needed a new strategy.
We carried out a comprehensive research study in the West Region of Cameroon, collecting information on potential issues that may be contributing to the disease’s continuing persistence. We also carried out assessments to evaluate infection in flies and humans, and identified a 12km area in Massangam health district where a large number of people have river blindness.
The results showed several reasons why so many people in the area have the disease, including:
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Once we’d discovered why the disease has remained a problem in Cameroon, we started working with the local community to discuss new ways of treating it.
The existing approach, carried out via mass drug administration, involves as many people as possible (whether they are infected or not) being given treatment to stop the disease progressing and prevent them passing it to others.
We decided to try a new approach in the affected area: testing people to find out whether they have the disease, then only treating the people who test positive.
Efforts are also being made to reach the nomadic communities through a strategy to test and treat them (with doxycycline) in a way that’s culturally appropriate. This is timed to fit in with their migration patterns, to reach the maximum number of people possible.
As well as treating people who have the infection, we also want to stop them becoming infected via fly bites in the first place. To do this, we inspect rivers for black flies, looking for larvae on vegetation or rocks. We then use insecticide to kill the fly larvae and prevent them developing into adult flies.
The process, known as larviciding, uses a safe insecticide that is well tolerated by the environment and other aquatic creatures. During larviciding, the flies are monitored to determine if their numbers are falling. This enables us to change our strategy if it’s not proving effective.