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What is lymphatic filariasis?

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

Hassana from Nigeria sits in her home. She has lymphatic filariasis and her left leg is visibly swollen.

Lymphatic filariasis 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, affecting the lymphatic system. The worms can live for six to eight years, producing millions of larvae that circulate in the infected person’s blood.

The debilitating symptoms mean many people are unable to work, and children miss school to care for family members. The associated stigma can have a devastating impact on those affected, as well as their families and communities.

Watch our video to learn more about Sightsavers’ work to treat lymphatic filariasis in Guinea-Bissau.

120 million
people worldwide are infected with LF
40 million
people are incapacitated by the disease
885 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

A combined dose of two medicines is given every year to people in high-risk areas by local volunteer community-directed distributors.

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.

A woman working in a science laboratory.

Research

Research is undertaken to evaluate, inform and improve our programme strategies, helping to eliminate this disease more quickly and fairly.

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 2018, we provided more than 45 million treatments for LF worldwide. We also trained more than 218,000 local volunteers to distribute medication to treat a range of neglected tropical diseases, including lymphatic filariasis.

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.

District onchocerciasis co-ordinator William Mugayo and Ugandan Secretary of Health Titus Ariyo discuss the mass drug administration project during a radio broadcast with DJ Robert Musasizi.

How radio is saving lives in Uganda

In remote regions of Uganda, radio broadcasts are used to spread vital information about diseases such as lymphatic filariasis, and how to treat them.

Read more

Find out about other diseases we treat

Neglected tropical diseases

More about lymphatic filariasis

A woman with LF cleans her affected limb.
Sightsavers blog

Catching the mosquitoes that spread lymphatic filariasis

Sightsavers’ research, which involves testing mosquitoes for signs of the disease, can help us to ensure treatment is directed where it’s needed most.

Dr Rogers Nditanchou, September 2019
Julianah from Kogi, Nigeria stands outside a field near her home in Ajenejo, Kogi State Nigeria.
Sightsavers blog

Putting people at the centre of our work to eliminate neglected tropical diseases

Sightsavers' river blindness and lymphatic filariasis programme has delivered 60 million treatments in four countries. Here’s what we’ve learned from the project.

Ron Bannerman, June 2019
A nurse helps wash a woman who has lymphatic filariasis wash her swollen leg.
Sightsavers from the field

Caring for patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo may have the highest burdens of neglected tropical diseases. But people on the ground are working to protect communities.

January 2020

Learn how we’re fighting disease