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River Blindness Elimination Program

Our Goal

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. The parasite is spread by the bites of infected black flies that breed in rapidly flowing rivers.

How Widespread is the Disease?

Onchocerciasis has affected countries in Africa and Latin America, as well as Yemen. The disease can cause intense itching, eye damage, and irreversible blindness, reducing an individual's ability to work and learn.

The Carter Center currently works to eliminate river blindness together with the following countries: Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, and Venezuela. Together with the Ministries of Health and partners, the Carter Center's Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas has successfully eliminated river blindness transmission from Colombia (2013), Ecuador (2014), Mexico (2015), and Guatemala (2016).

Our Strategy

The Carter Center currently assists ministries of health in six nations to eliminate river blindness through health education and mass distribution of the medicine Mectizan®, donated by Merck.

Mectizan kills the parasite larvae in the human body, preventing blindness and skin disease in infected persons, and stopping the transmission of the parasite to others. The Carter Center works through national ministries of health to provide health education and mobilize affected communities to distribute Mectizan.

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 by helping to provide multiple Mecitzan treatments per year in endemic areas. 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 and most Mectizan treatments are annual, the Center and its partners have successfully broken river blindness transmission in Uganda and Sudan by providing twice per year Mectizan treatments. The successes have spurred river blindness elimination projects in Ethiopia and Nigeria.

Results and Impact

To date, the Center with its partners has:

  • Interrupted transmission of river blindness in Nigeria’s Plateau and Nasarawa states, allowing it to stop mass drug administration (MDA) of ivermectin in those states in 2018. Covering about 2 million residents, it is the largest stop-MDA decision in the history of the River Blindness Elimination Program.
  • Distributed more than 240 million treatments of Mectizan® in Africa and Latin America.
  • Eliminated 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 be granted verification of elimination of river blindness by the World Health Organization (WHO). Ecuador, Mexico, and Guatemala followed in Colombia's steps, receiving official verification of elimination in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively.
  • Demonstrated that river blindness transmission elimination is possible in regions of Africa, where it was long thought to be too prevalent to tackle. The program has successfully eliminated transmission from 15 of the original 17 foci in Uganda, where 2.7 million Ugandans are now believed to be free from the scourge and eliminated transmission in Abu Hamad, Sudan, the most isolated focus area in the world, with more than 100,000 people no longer at risk of the disease.
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The Carter Center works to eliminate river blindness, not just control it, in all the areas where we are fighting this neglected disease in Africa and Latin America.

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