In the battle to fight a major cause of preventable blindness, the
Carter Center's River Blindness Program and Lions Clubs International
Foundation are celebrating the delivery of more than 50 million
Mectizanâ treatments in 11 countries in Africa and the Americas since
Around the world, river blindness has an enormous economic impact,
preventing people from working, harvesting crops, receiving an
education, or caring for children. Fertile banks of swiftly flowing
rivers teem with black flies whose multiple bites insert a microscopic
parasitic worm into victims. The worm's offspring swarm through the
body, especially the skin and eyes, eventually causing river
blindness, also known as onchocerciasis.
River blindness has infected 18 million people. Half a million are
visually impaired, and another 270,000 are irreversibly blind because
of the disease, according to the World Health Organization. The
estimated economic burden of global blindness is more than U.S.$25
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, an active Lions Clubs member,
said, "Fighting blinding diseases has profound significance, not just
for me as an interested observer, but for the child who will never go
blind and for his parents and grandparents, who now have hope their
lives can improve. When people receive Mectizan, it is often the only
time they experience such hope. The distribution of more than 50
million treatments is an incredible achievement."
Health education and the distribution of Mectizan treatments have not
only prevented millions from contracting river blindness but also have
saved multitudes of communities from near extinction. Villagers who
once abandoned fertile land near rivers to avoid being bitten have
returned to their land and revived their local economy.
In coffee producing countries like Guatemala, contracting
onchocerciasis may be considered an occupational hazard -- often the
fast-flowing streams where the black flies breed are located near
where workers harvest coffee. In parts of Ethiopia, almost everyone in
an endemic village will harbor the disease, and it is estimated that a
small child is bitten more than 20,000 times each year.
But health education and Mecitzan treatments have transformed
individual lives. Semanza Erisa, 54, lived in the bush, an outcast
from his Ugandan village after being infected. His skin, he said, was
like that of a hippopotamus. The severe itchiness he experienced
forced him to rub against trees in search of relief from the misery.
The parasites, which are small thread-like worms, cause intense
itching, skin discoloration, and ultimately blindness. Six years of
treatment defeated the disease and saved him from losing his sight.
Today, Erisa works as a handyman and supports a wife and child in his
home in the village.
A Nigerian tailor whose eyesight was beginning to be affected by the
parasite reported that he could see well enough to thread a needle by
himself again, after taking Mectizan.
"Lions have been 'Knights of the Blind' for nearly 80 years. We are
overjoyed that in cooperation with The Carter Center we've been able
to save the sight of millions of people," said Kay K. Fukushima,
chairperson of Lions Clubs International Foundation.
Lions Clubs International Foundation has provided The Carter Center
with U.S.$24.1 million in grants since 1996 to prevent blindness in
Africa and the Americas.
Taking the medication is simple enough, but a key challenge for the
River Blindness Program is to continue to reinforce distribution
networks, educate the villagers about the efficacy and safety of the
medication, and enlist the support of community leaders.
"Local Lions, in conjunction with The Carter Center and ministries of
health, hold river blindness educational workshops for villagers,
community leaders, and policy makers," said Moses Katabarwa, Carter
Center epidemiologist for the River Blindness Program and a Lion.
"Lions on the ground are extremely active and passionate. They see
the difference that Lions are making in the fight against blindness."
A Carter Center conference on the eradicability of onchocerciasis in
January 2002 concluded that river blindness cannot be eradicated
globally using current tools and technology because of conditions
specific to Africa. However, regional eradication of the disease in
the Americas is possible if drug treatment can be given two times a
year to at least 85 percent of those who need it. In Africa, where 99
percent of the cases occur, annual administration of Mectizan
indefinitely will keep onchocerciasis controlled so that it no longer
poses a public health problem. In 1987, Merck & Co., Inc. announced
its decision to donate Mectizan in whatever amounts are needed to
prevent onchocerciasis, for as long as necessary.
The 50 million treatment milestone is being announced with partners
such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Merck and the
Mectizan Donation Program, African Programme for Onchocerciasis
Control, World Health Organization, and each of the national programs.
This strong international coalition seeks to increase public-private
partnerships and awareness, ultimately leading to the effective
prevention of unnecessary suffering of millions of people.
Lions Clubs International (LCI), based in Oak Brook, Ill., is the
world's largest service club organization with 1.4 million members.
LCIF, the grant-making arm of LCI, fights preventable blindness
primarily through its SightFirst program. SightFirst programs correct
cataract, train ophthalmic personnel, develop infrastructure, and
combat river blindness in 78 countries on six continents. SightFirst
has awarded U.S.$148 million in grants since it began in 1990. To
learn more, please visit www.lcif.org.
The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy
Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in partnership with Emory University,
to advance peace and health worldwide. A not-for-profit,
nongovernmental organization, the Center has helped to improve life
for people in more than 65 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing
democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing
diseases; improving mental health care; and teaching farmers to
increase crop production. To learn more about The Carter Center,
please visit www.cartercenter.org.