Nearly four million people in Uganda are now free from the threat of river blindness, moving the country one step closer to removing the parasitic disease for good.
The Uganda National Onchocerciasis Elimination Committee, which includes representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO), has announced that river blindness has been removed from 14 out of the 17 areas of the country where it was previously common. Some of these areas are home to migratory populations living in deep forests, which were challenging for health workers to reach.
The announcement marks a huge step towards the goal of eliminating the disease in Uganda. While there are still challenges to be faced before elimination can be confirmed, this achievement means the infection is no longer being spread in most of the key areas.
River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, is transmitted by the bite of infected black flies that breed near fast-flowing rivers. Worm larvae invade the body through the bite, causing severe itching and other skin conditions. From there, they can find their way to the eye, causing sight loss.
The itching and blindness caused by the disease can lead to social isolation, and can stop people going to work and performing other day-to-day tasks. It can also force communities to move away from fertile river valleys where the disease is prevalent, pushing them into poverty.
To stop the disease spreading, Sightsavers and partners distribute medication called Mectizan®. River blindness is also addressed by eradicating the flies that carry the disease, known as vector control, or ‘fly-catching’. This project is funded in part by UK aid with money from the British public, as a result of a Sightsavers UK Aid Match initiative in 2016.
The Uganda National Onchocerciasis Elimination Programme is being supported by Sightsavers, with funding from partners in four of the 17 areas across Uganda. Sightsavers is working with the government of Uganda, The Carter Center and RTI International, along with Merck Sharpe & Dohme, which produces Mectizan® and provides the medication for free.
Working with our partners, Sightsavers aims to help Ugandans eliminate river blindness altogether. This would be a significant accomplishment in the global fight against river blindness, which is still endemic in 31 countries in 2016, with more than 198 million people around the world at risk of infection. There is also work to do in preventing other neglected diseases including lymphatic filariasis, which is treated alongside river blindness, and trachoma.