The Carter Center works with national ministries of health in Latin America and Africa to eliminate river blindness, one of the leading causes of preventable blindness worldwide.
What is river blindness?
River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, is a parasitic infection that can cause intense itching, skin discoloration, rashes, and eye disease that often leads to permanent blindness. It is spread by the bites of small black flies that breed in rapidly flowing rivers.
How widespread is the problem?
Today, endemic to more than 36 countries in Africa and Latin America, river blindness has an enormous impact. It can cause intense itching, eye damage, and irreversible blindness, reducing an individual's ability to work and learn.
Since 1996, The Carter Center has worked to eliminate river blindness together with the following countries: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nigeria, The Republic of Sudan, The Republic of South Sudan, Uganda, and Venezuela.
The Carter Center currently assists ministries of health in nine nations to eliminate river blindness through health education and distribution of the medicine Mectizan®, donated by Merck.
Mectizan kills the parasite larvae in the human body, preventing blindness and transmission of river blindness to others. The Carter Center mobilizes communities to distribute Mectizan and provide health education through local agencies and networks.
Based on findings of the 2002 Conference on the Eradicability of Onchocerciasis hosted at The Carter Center, river blindness is not currently globally eradicable. However, The Carter Center is working to eliminate it in select regions.
In Latin America, where less than 1 percent of river blindness cases exist, The Carter Center works through its Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) to eliminate the disease from the region. Today, efforts focus on Brazil and Venezuela, where transmission of the last cases in the Americas still occurs in an isolated area on the border of the two countries.
In Africa, where more than 99 percent of the global cases exist, successes at nearly eliminating river blindness in Uganda and Sudan have spurred river blindness elimination projects in Ethiopia and Nigeria.
Results and Impact
To date, the Center with its partners have:
- Distributed more than 200 million treatments of Mectizan in Africa and Latin America.
- Interrupted transmission of river blindness in 11 foci of the 13 endemic areas in the Americas through health education and Mectizan distribution. In 2013, Colombia became the first country in the Americas to eliminate river blindness and the first country in the world to apply for and be granted verification of elimination of river blindness by the World Health Organization. In 2014, Ecuador became the second country to be verified as free of the disease.
- Demonstrated that river blindness elimination is possible in regions of Africa, where it was long thought to be too prevalent to tackle.
- Stopped river blindness transmission from 15 of the original 17 foci in Uganda, enabling 2.7 million Ugandans to be free from the scourge.
- Stopped river blindness transmission in Abu Hamad, Sudan, the most isolated focus area in the world, with more than 100,000 no longer at risk of the disease.