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Alidu Kemisa: Treatment Relieves Agony of River Blindness

Alidu Kemisa cannot seem to stop rubbing her arms and touching her head as she describes the symptoms that have plagued her for more than ten years: pain, intense itching, and roughening of her skin.

"The itching does not really stop," explains Kemisa, who is 47 and has six children and seven grandchildren. Now a resident of the Muslim community Obongi Town West, in Uganda's Moyo district, Kemisa became infected with onchocerciasis, or river blindness, years ago. She began receiving treatment in July 2011 through the Uganda Ministry of Health, which launched a nationwide onchocerciasis elimination program in 2007 in partnership with The Carter Center.

Uganda's decision to push for phased nationwide elimination of onchocerciasis was a groundbreaking moment for the disease in Africa, and its burgeoning success is proving that river blindness can be eliminated in parts of Africa once considered too endemic to get rid of the disease through health education and drug treatment alone.

Alidu Kemisa, 47 years old with six children and seven grandchildren lives in Obongi Town West in Moyo. Alidu has suffered from river blindness for more than 10 years with itching & pain. (Photos: The Carter Center/K. Hinton)

River blindness is spread by the bites of tiny, vicious black flies that breed in fast-moving streams and rivers in many areas of Uganda and throughout Africa. The fly infects the body with a nematode parasite that grows and produces thousands of baby worms. When the baby worms die, it triggers a response similar to an allergic reaction: itching, irritation, and pain. Eventually the worms may migrate to the eye, resulting in compromised vision and even blindness.

For nearly two decades, The Carter Center has worked with the Ministry of Health and other organizations to distribute the drug Mectizan (ivermectin, donated by Merck) annually or biannually in endemic communities throughout Uganda. The drug kills the worms and when given in twice-yearly doses, halts progress of the disease.

"The itching does not really stop," explains Kemisa, who received her first treatment for river blindness in July 2011.

For Kemisa, though, treatment began only after years of debilitating symptoms. Suspicious of the medication at first, she says she was unsure what it was for, and sought relief by using local herbs; then, she missed several visits from her community drug distributor, although her children were home and received the medicine.

When she finally took her first dose of Mectizan last July, Kemisa reacted with severe itching and swelling all over her body - a normal reaction for a patient with an extremely high infection load. Since then, her reaction to the medicine has been less severe as her infection begins to subside.

"All those years, I was really suffering," Kemisa says, adding that she often was unable to go out and tend her crops and could not sleep at night because of the constant need to scratch at her skin. Now, she can feel an improvement and will continue to take Mectizan: "Yes," she says. "I will always take it."

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