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.
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 2021, Sightsavers helped to distribute more than 52 million treatments for river blindness. Since our work began 70 years ago, we’ve provided more than 11 million operations 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.
Meet Clécio Sitoe and Silvia Danga, who are helping to track the prevalence of river blindness in Mozambique.Read their story
Sightsavers’ Simon Bush has received a lifetime achievement award for his work on river blindness, and has been named president of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Since 1991, Sightsavers been helping Mali’s ministry of health to treat and prevent this blinding disease. Now the country is on track to banish it for good.
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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