Onchocerciasis, also known as “river blindness,” is a parasitic infection that occurs through the bite of a black fly, which is found near swiftly flowing rivers. A worm parasite enters the human body and produces thousands of larval worms which migrate in the skin and eye. When the worms die, they are toxic to the skin and eyes, causing extreme itching and eye lesions; after long-term exposure these lesions may lead to low vision or irreversible blindness, as well as disfiguring skin diseases. River blindness is endemic to Central, East and West Africa, parts of Latin America and the Middle Eastern country of Yemen.
Nearly 37 million people are infected with river blindness, of which approximately 300,000 have been blinded or visually impaired. Approximately 100 million people in Africa and Latin America are at-risk of contracting the disease.
The effects of river blindness beyond sight loss have been devastating; because the black flies breed in fast water—where the most fertile land is located—many people have had to abandon their houses and land in the fertile river valleys. This has caused not only the uprooting of homes, but also greatly damaged the economic productivity of many villages in some of the poorest areas in the world.
River blindness is easily controlled with one annual or bi-annual dose of ivermectin, a drug manufactured and donated by Merck & Co. Mectizan®. Mectizan® kills the parasite's larvae in the human body, preventing river blindness and transmission of the disease to others. Merck has committed to donating the medicine free of charge until the disease is eradicated. With the continued use of Mectizan®, it is hoped that transmission of river blindness will be interrupted and the disease will be virtually eliminated.
Since 1993, Lions Clubs International Foundation has awarded US$33 million to support the distribution of river blindness medicine, Mectizan®, to approximately 251 million people in 15 African and Latin American countries. SightFirst facilitated the training of 682,000 community volunteers to distribute the medication. Working with the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control and the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas initiatives, the Foundation's partnerships are critical to our efforts to ensure that river blindness is no longer a public health problem. SightFirst has worked in close partnership since 1999 with The Carter Center—a leader in the fight to end river blindness.
The effective collaboration of NGOs, ministries of health, governments, private sector companies, UN agencies and others is showing success. Colombia and Ecuador were two of the first nations in the world to have halted river blindness entirely through prevention, treatment and health education. In Africa, recent studies have shown the first evidence of feasibility of elimination in some areas. These steps toward halting onchocerciasis are not only preventing blindness, but also enabling people to return to their land and revive their local economies.
SightFirst will fund existing Lions-led river blindness projects that have exhibited success and are focused on creating locally sustainable mechanisms for ivermectin distribution and the development of comprehensive eye care services. SightFirst supports onchocerciasis control programs in countries where the disease exists as a major threat to sight.