The Carter Center's Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) works to end illness and transmission of onchocerciasis in Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia.
Headquartered in Guatemala, OEPA partners with the ministries of health of the affected countries in Latin America, as well as with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, academic institutions, and independent organizations.
As of September 2015, a total of 11 foci of the 13 endemic areas have eliminated or interrupted transmission as a result of health education and mass drug administration (MDA) with Mectizan®. Colombia (2007) and Ecuador (2009) became the first countries in the world to halt river blindness transmission through health education and semiannual distribution of Mectizan. The countries stopped MDA and entered a 3-year period of post-treatment surveillance (PTS), during which black flies and blood samples from the formerly endemic areas were tested for evidence of onchocerciasis. Mexico and Guatemala both followed suit in 2012, ending mass treatment and entering their PTS period.
In July 2013, Colombia publicly announced that it became the first country in the Americas to receive World Health Organization verification of eliminating river blindness. Ecuador and Mexico marked the next two victories in the campaign to eliminate river blindness, receiving official verification of elimination in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Guatemala has also eliminated transmission of the disease, and filed its request for verification of elimination in March of 2015.
Today, transmission of the disease remains only in the hard-to-reach border area between Venezuela and Brazil, commonly referred to as the Yanomami area. Interrupting onchocerciasis transmission from this final area in the Americas is the biggest challenge to the regional initiative, particularly due to the scattered migratory Yanomami population, which lives in the dense, nearly inaccessible terrain of the deep Amazon rainforest.
Today, as the result of highly successful national programs, this once "neglected" tropical disease has been wiped out from 95 percent of the region and no one need fear becoming blind from river blindness in the Americas.
Thanks to these achievements, the Americas region will soon permanently free itself from the threat of this debilitating disease.
Diverse populations and ecosystems are affected by river blindness. In Guatemala and Mexico, the mixed-ancestry and indigenous populations who live on coffee plantations were the most at risk. There, fast-flowing streams providing irrigation to nearby coffee farms acted as breeding grounds for the black flies which spread the disease. The nomadic Yanomami of Brazil and Venezuela are some of the most severely affected groups as their travel throughout the Amazon rainforest places them at continuous risk for exposure.
Local health workers, including these men, have dedicated countless hours to eradicating onchocerciasis in their communities. (Photo: The Carter Center)
River blindness is less widespread in the Americas than in Africa. Semiannual treatments — in some cases up to four times annually — with Mectizan® (ivermectin, donated by Merck) over many years can halt disease transmission and improve health by reducing the presence of the parasite's larvae in the human body.
Before OEPA started operations in 1993, only 41,911 treatments of Mectizan were administered throughout Latin America, vastly underserving the populations at risk. The Carter Center assumed administrative responsibilities for OEPA in 1996, and twice-per-year treatments began to take off.
After several years of monitoring and evaluation of the program, in 2001, the Carter Center's International Task Force for Disease Eradication, in partnership with the World Health Organization, confirmed that river blindness could be eliminated from the Americas by treating 85 percent or more of infected people with semiannual doses of Mectizan. (Read the Final Report of the Conference on the Eradicability of Onchocerciasis.)
Today, the population requiring Mectizan treatment in the Americas has been reduced by more than 95 percent.
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