Medication can prevent the disease spreading. They don't cure blindness, but can help to stop any further sight loss.
The tablets, donated by Merck Sharpe & Dohme, are distributed via local volunteers known as community-directed distributors.
River blindness is also addressed by eradicating the flies that carry the disease, a process that is known as vector control.
Traditionally, river blindness and lymphatic filariasis have been treated through individual programmes. But because they are often detected in the same areas and can both be treated with medication, Sightsavers treats both of the diseases together using mass drug administration.
In 2019, Sightsavers helped to distribute more than 42 million treatments for river blindness. Since our work began 70 years ago, we’ve provided more than 513 million treatments worldwide to protect eyesight.
As part of our push to eliminate river blindness, in November 2017 we achieved a historic milestone: distributing the one billionth treatment to people affected by neglected tropical diseases. The billionth treatment, an antibiotic for river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, was administered to a seven-year-old girl named Dorcas, who was at risk of NTDs in a community in Kaduna State, Nigeria.
Evans Anim lives in the Ashanti region in southern Ghana, an area once plagued by river blindness. This parasitic disease is spread by flies, causing severe itching and skin irritation, and can eventually lead to blindness.
Luckily, it can be treated with medication. When taken regularly, it stops the infection spreading and ensures children like Evans can grow up without suffering like his father, Kwaku, did.
Kwaku recalls what life was like before the medication was available. “When I was younger, I lived with illness for a long time,” he explains. “The itching stopped me working: I kept stopping to scratch my skin. It kept me awake at night, and when I had to bathe the cold water hurt so badly sometimes I couldn’t wash. The scratching damages your skin, making it sore and hard.” Yet the itching wasn’t the only danger. “I know people who were completely blind because of the disease,” Kwaku explains.
Eventually, Kwaku heard about a Sightsavers programme to combat river blindness by training local volunteers to distribute the tablets in the community.“After I took the treatments for the first time, I felt good and my skin got better,” he says. “The flies are still here, but this is our home. If the treatment stopped, we would have to leave as it wouldn’t be safe for my family.
“Before the drug I was fearful and scared of going blind. Now I know I don’t have to be afraid. My children, they are young. Because of the treatments, they will grow up without blindness.”