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What is river blindness?

River blindness, or onchocerciasis, is a parasitic infection spread by flies that live near fast-flowing rivers. It causes severe skin irritation, itching and, eventually, irreversible blindness.

A close-up of a plastic vial containing the flies that transmit river blindness.

River blindness is spread by the bite of infected flies that breed near fast-flowing rivers.

The disease’s connection to rivers gave rise to the term ‘river blindness’, which was coined by Lady Jean Wilson, wife of Sightsavers’ founder Sir John Wilson. It is one of a group of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

When someone is bitten by the flies, worm larvae invade the body and develop into worms that can live for 15 years. Female worms produce thousands of microscopic larvae, known as ‘microfilariae’, each day, which spread through the body and can be passed on to others. When the microfilariae die, they cause a reaction leading to immense irritation, inflammation and itching. If the larvae travel to the eyes, it can cause irreversible sight loss.

As well as pain, blindness and the associated stigma, river blindness forces people to move away from fertile river valleys where the disease is prevalent. As a result, they can struggle to find suitable areas to farm or grow crops, pushing families and communities into poverty.

Watch our video to find out more about river blindness.

205 million
people worldwide are at risk of contracting river blindness
20.9 million
people are infected. Most live in sub-Saharan Africa
1.1 million
people worldwide are blind because of the disease

How is river blindness treated?

A photo of two hands. In one hand there are three tablets.

Medication

Medication can help to prevent the disease spreading. It doesn’t cure blindness, but can help to stop any further sight loss.

Philomene, a volunteer community-directed distributor, stands smiling inside Massangam hospital

Volunteers

Tablets donated by Merck Sharpe & Dohme are distributed via local volunteers known as community-directed distributors.

A close-up showing black flies on a blade of grass

Fly-catching

River blindness is also addressed by eradicating the flies that carry the disease, a process that is known as vector control.

What we’re doing

Sightsavers is working to eliminate river blindness in the countries in which we work by 2025.

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 2020, Sightsavers helped to distribute more than 8 million treatments for river blindness. Since our work began 70 years ago, we’ve provided more than 529 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.

Emmanuel.

Emmanuel’s story

Meet 60-year-old Emmanuel, who lost his sight while earning a living as a fisherman after he contracted river blindness.

Read his story

Find out about other diseases we treat

Neglected tropical diseases

More about river blindness

A close-up of flies in a test tube.
sightsavers_news

Sightsavers and GLIDE pioneer new ways to fight river blindness

The partnership will test innovative ways to collect and analyse the flies that spread the disease.

November 2021
Kareen Atekem is shown in a yellow Sightsavers top standing outside next to a Sightsavers vehicle.
sightsavers_news

Sightsavers researcher wins recognition for innovative NTD project

Kareen Atekem's work on a new project to help control and eliminate two neglected tropical diseases has been recognised by the NTD Innovation Prize competition.

September 2021
African Renaissance Monument is lit up in honour of World NTD Day.
Sightsavers from the field

World NTD Day 2021: highlights from around the world

On 30 January 2021, Sightsavers joined global celebrations to mark the fight against neglected tropical diseases.

February 2021