Profile From the Field: Mauricio Sauerbrey, M.T., M.Sc., Ph.D.
Director, Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas
If passion is a key ingredient for success, then Dr. Mauricio Sauerbrey embodies the necessary "stuff" for meeting the goal of interrupted transmission of river blindness — or onchocerciasis—in the Americas by 2012.
Director of the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas since 1998, Dr. Sauerbrey is confident the goal will be met and cites the trend in Guatemala as a strong indicator.
"In the past, Guatemala and Mexico used to show the most severe cases of blindness due to onchocerciasis," Dr. Sauerbrey explains. "But, at this point, there have been no blindness cases caused by onchocerciasis in the Americas since 1995."
The dramatic change, he says, is due mostly to the drug Mectizan®, which is distributed to all at-risk communities twice a year to treat and prevent the disease.
"The great generosity from Merck, the pharmaceutical company that donates Mectizan®, is really unique," he says.
Of course, there are still obstacles to overcome. One is getting treatment to the nomadic Yanomami tribe who live in remote jungles by the Amazon. Another is to keep the governments of each country interested in fighting a disease that "is not within their top priority."
"This is my main road," Dr. Sauerbrey says of his work. "To try to keep that political will, to be in back of the ministries of health and the authorities, pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing. It may not mean anything to them, but it does for the people of a community where the disease is prevailing, where it may cause blindness."
The main challenge, he says, is simply to make sure that all people in all areas continue taking Mectizan® twice a year.
"Sometimes the field workers are pressed for time, so when they don't find the people in their houses, they leave the treatment, and some end up taking it, but some end up not taking it. That is the main obstacle I see," Dr. Sauerbrey says.
"If we can continue to comply with good quality treatment, it's only a matter of a couple years, and we'll be there."
He stresses that continued health education is the primary method for ensuring that people take Mectizan®.
Before joining OEPA, Dr. Sauerbrey worked for years as a malaria specialist in his native El Salvador, first with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and then with USAID. Under his supervision, malaria cases in the country dropped from nearly 100,000 to less than 2,000 in the course of about 10 years.
"This is what I like, and you should do what you like. Whatever you do, small or big, if you do it with passion, you'll get success. If you don't do anything with passion, forget it, you'll never get any success. That's the main reason why I'm here."
When asked what he'll do after the fight against onchocerciasis is finished, Dr. Sauerbrey maintains his hopeful outlook.
"The next job will come. Success brings success."
Dr. Mauricio Sauerbrey