Every year, Albert Tamanja Bidim carries a long measuring stick, a list of all residents, and tablets of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin through his village in Ghana. Taller kids and adults get one to four tablets. Bidim notes people who are away and saves doses for them.
He says in a recent interview that tracking down everyone in the village is difficult, but rewarding. In the past two years, nobody has lost their sight to river blindness, or onchocerciasis. The insect-borne disease releases hundreds of thousands of roundworm larvae that burrow into the skin, leaving people with excruciating itching for the rest of their lives. In some cases, the parasites attack the eyes, damaging vision and causing blindness.
More than 120 million people are at risk for river blindness, caused by biting blackflies that breed in fast-flowing rivers. Ninety-nine percent of cases occur in Africa, often in remote areas. The World Health Organization has classified river blindness as a “neglected tropical disease.”
For decades, scientists thought that river blindness was too tough to stop. But now, Ghana and other African countries are looking to wipe out the disease entirely.
‘It actually works!’
“It takes a lot of work, a lot of resources,” said Dr. Nana-Kwadwo Biritwum of Ghana’s Ministry of Health in an interview.
Ministries of health organize thousands volunteers such as Bidim to get doses of ivermectin to everyone at risk. Derived from a drug developed by 2015 Nobel Prize winners William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura, ivermectin kills parasitic larvae, and an annual treatment for 10–15 years gets rid of the disease entirely. Pharmaceutical company Merck has made the drug freely available, and international organizations, including the World Bank and the Carter Center, have helped fund distribution.
“Millions of separate stories, with millions of people playing supporting roles … and yet, despite the odds, it actually works!” wrote Carter Center senior fellow Dr. William Foege.
Today, villages where 80 percent of people might have contracted the disease in 1990 are showing rates of 2 to 3 percent. Ghana seeks to eliminate river blindness completely by 2020.
“I am not ready to celebrate until the task is complete,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, speaking in 2013. “It is the time to increase our efforts.”