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Miracle Medicine Mends Nigerian Tailor's Eyesight

38-year-old Zaki Baushe holds a thin metal needle in his left hand as he deftly angles a thread through its eye. As a tailor in Akwanga local government area, Nasarawa State, Nigeria, it is an act that he has repeated thousands of times throughout his life. Yet several years ago, Baushe was in danger of losing this skill entirely.

In 2006, Baushe noticed that his vision was fading and it became difficult for him to perform the simplest of sewing tasks. His blindness only worsened over time. Not knowing the cause of his condition, he was forced to abandon his old treadle sewing machine. Each day he stood by helplessly, unable to return to the living that had sustained him and his family.

Dr. Emmanuel Miri, resident technical adviser for the Carter Center's health programs in Nigeria, discovered Baushe's case during a routine visit to administer medicines in Kambre. Listening to his symptoms, it was clear to Dr. Miri that Baushe was suffering from river blindness, also known as onchocerciasis.

Baushe was surprised to learn that his affliction was caused by the repeated bites of black flies that swarmed near his village. Through their bites, some of these flies had deposited larvae into his body, which grew into parasitic worms. However, it was the offspring of these worms, called microfilariae, that were the principal cause of his troubles. They swarmed under his skin, causing intense itching and skin discoloration, and had migrated into his eyes--causing lesions that had damaged his sight.

Nigeria is the most endemic country in the world for river blindness, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the global disease burden. It is estimated that up to 27 million Nigerians living in 32 endemic states need treatment for river blindness.

Dr. Miri knew that he could change Baushe's life through the dose of a small white pill called Mectizan®. The drug, donated by Merck & Co. Inc., and distributed to the Nigeria National Onchocerciasis Control Program through The Carter Center, safely treats river blindness by administering Mectizan which kills the microfilariae in the body. Not only does the drug stop the progression of the disease, but it also can reverse some of the damage caused by the parasite.

After taking several annual doses of Mectizan, Baushe's sight improved dramatically. He was able to thread a needle with ease, and he returned joyfully to his work.

Since 1989, the Nigeria National Onchocerciasis Control Program has grown from treating 49,566 people with Mectizan its first year of operation, to the world's largest Mectizan distribution program. In 2009, The Carter Center-assisted program in Nigeria provided Mectizan and health education to more than 5.8 million people in 7,917 villages around the country.

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