July 22, 2009

WHO: End of river blindness feasible

A study in Mali and Senegal where river blindness was endemic has provided evidence of the feasibility of the disease's elimination, researchers said.

Previously, it was thought that elimination of river blandness, also known as onchocerciasis, was only possible in the limited, isolated areas in the Americas where the disease is endemic, officials at the World Health Organization in Switzerland.

This evidence is an historic milestone -- it has far-reaching implications for the fight against this disease, Uche Amazigo, the director of the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control. Prior to this study we did not know if we would ever be able to stop treatment.

Onchocerciasis is transmitted by blackfly, which breeds in rivers, and often blinds people, as well as causing debilitating skin disease.

The treatment, Ivermectin, kills the larvae but not the adult worms of Onchocerca volvulus, the parasite that causes the disease, so annual or biannual treatments are required to prevent resurgence. Merck & Co., which discovered and manufactures the drug, donated the drug in 1987 to countries where onchocerciasis is endemic.

The studies, published in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, showed that after 15 to 17 years of six-monthly or annual treatments, only a few infections remained in the human population.