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 disease can cause abnormally enlarged body parts, which can be extremely painful and can lead to permanent physical changes. This condition, called lymphoedema, is highly stigmatised. In men, it can cause hydrocele, a form of lymphoedema that causes the scrotum to swell, leading to pain and disability.
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.
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 is not co-endemic, lymphatic filariasis is treated using diethylcarbamazine, produced by Eisai, and albendazole tablets, donated by GlaxoSmithKline.
In 2020, we provided more than 74 million treatments for LF worldwide. We also trained more than 450,000 local volunteers to distribute medication via mass drug administration to treat a range of neglected tropical diseases, including lymphatic filariasis.
Although people with advanced lymphoedema 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 limbs and care for their skin. Symptoms can also be helped by elevating limbs and by wearing footwear. Hydrocele can be cured through surgery, transforming the lives of men affected.
An estimated 42 million people in DRC need treatment for lymphatic filariasis. Find out how Sightsavers is working to protect communities.What we’re doing
To tackle disease, we need to know who is affected. In Liberia, Sightsavers has studied mosquitoes and tested children to see how urban migration affects the spread of lymphatic filariasis.
Salifat experienced painful swelling in her leg for a year before she was visited by a local health worker, who told her she had lymphatic filariasis and taught her to manage her symptoms.
Pelagie is an entomologist who’s paving the way for more women to lead in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.
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