South American River

Colombia becomes first nation to eradicate river blindness

Colombia is the first country in the world to eradicate onchocerciasis, commonly known as "river blindness." 

Organizers believe river blindness will soon also be eradicated in Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico.

The country accomplished this by distributing an anti-parasitic drug in affected regions and educating local communities about the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

This is an important step in fighting a widespread disease. Onchocerciasis is the second-leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide, according to WHO data. It affects more than 18 million people and causes more than 300,000 cases of blindness. River blindness occurs when the roundworm Onchocerca volvulus is spread to humans by the bite of an infected black fly, common in river areas. It leads to skin and eye damage.

The WHO runs a worldwide effort to eradicate river blindness as part of its decade-long Vision 2020—The Right to Sight program to improve eye health around the globe. The AOA formally supports the WHO Right to Sight program, including the work to fight river blindness.

In addition, recent National Optometry Hall of Fame inductee William R. Baldwin, O.D., has championed U.S.-based efforts to fight the sight-threatening eye condition. Dr. Baldwin is a longtime dean of the University of Houston's College of Optometry who, after witnessing the devastating effects of the eye condition in Africa, established the River Blindness Foundation. 

A model for future campaigns

In addition to the WHO, the non-profit Carter Center, led by former President Jimmy Carter, plays a major role in efforts to end the disease. Since 1993, the Carter Center has led a campaign to eradicate river blindness in six Latin American countries: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.

The campaign provided affected communities in Colombia with the medicine ivermectin (Mectizan®) twice a year over 12 consecutive years. The drug, provided for free by U.S. pharmaceutical company Merck, kills the worm larvae that cause skin and eye damage.

Local health care workers, community volunteers and leaders played a key role in health education and distributing the drug.

Organizers believe river blindness will soon also be eradicated in Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico, too. The WHO hopes the progress made in Latin America will bolster similar efforts in Africa, particularly in western and central Africa. More than 120 million people are at risk in those regions.

October 18, 2013

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