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Reducing river blindness and lymphatic filariasis

These debilitating diseases are caused by parasite infections. Our programme, which ended in 2019, provided medication to protect people at risk, and our work to eliminate these diseases continues.

A river blindness worker stands beside a river inspecting reeds for signs of black flies that carry the disease.

From 2016 to 2019, the river blindness and lymphatic filariasis programme delivered treatment to stop infections being spread, and to stop the flies that transmit river blindness from breeding.

The programme ran in Uganda, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and the Democratic Republic of Congo (sub-Saharan Africa carries almost the entire global burden of the diseases).

The programme has exceeded its aims, helping to protect millions of people from neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), improving healthcare systems in the four countries. Many of the insights gained will help to inform future projects.

The work was funded by UK aid and the Department for International Development (DFID).

500,000
people worldwide are blind because of river blindness
40 million
people are incapacitated because of lymphatic filariasis
The majority
of those affected by the diseases live in sub-Saharan Africa

How did the programme work?

One of the unfortunate outcomes of the diseases is that people are forced to move away from fertile river valleys, where these NTDs are prevalent, which means they struggle to find suitable areas to grow crops or farm. This pushes families and communities into poverty, which is both a cause and consequence of the poor health caused by the conditions.

While river blindness is transmitted by the black fly and LF is transmitted by the mosquito, both are caused by an infection of the filarial worm that can be treated with the same medication – Mectizan®. By adding albendazole, a common de-worming medication, in areas where LF is present, both diseases could be successfully treated together, efficiently and cost-effectively, through mass drug administration.

Sightsavers worked in collaboration with a network of partners to reach men, women and children at risk of these two diseases, and followed the World Health Organization’s recommended coordination of river blindness and LF treatment.

By helping to eliminate these debilitating diseases, the programme aimed to develop healthy communities where children no longer struggle with the health risks posed by NTDs that were faced by their parents and grandparents.

Julianah from Kogi, Nigeria stands outside a field near her home in Ajenejo, Kogi State Nigeria.

What we’ve learned from the programme

There are many important legacies from the programme that will help to inform all those working to tackle NTDs, as we continue on the path towards elimination.

Read the blog

What did the programme achieve?

A boy holds a tablet used to treat neglected tropical diseases.

Stopping infection

The programme interrupted the infection of lymphatic filariasis in 54 areas. It helped one area to eliminate river blindness completely, and provided support to two other areas so they were able to stop the disease being spread.

Hassana.

Caring for patients

Patient care for lymphatic filariasis was piloted in four areas. We found that when people received surgery and treatment, awareness increased in the community about the condition, encouraging more people to come for treatment.

Looking to the future

There are many important insights from our programme that will be used in new NTD initiatives. What’s more, the health systems that the programme helped to improve will ensure that countries can continue to tackle these debilitating diseases in the future.

While significant progress has been made and we are proud of what this programme has achieved, there are still considerable challenges that must be faced to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases.

More funding, collaboration and support is needed to achieve this important goal. Together we can enhance the health, quality of life and future wellbeing of people affected by NTDs.

Okello Charles.

“I feel happy I can do something to protect my children”

Okello Charles volunteers to catch the flies that spread the disease.

Read Okello’s story

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