By Francis Kagolo & Mayimunah Namulemo
KAMPALA - The success Uganda has recorded in controlling neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) could be eroded if its neighbours remain reluctant to match its standards, experts have warned.
Dr. Edrinah Tukahebwa, the assistant commissioner for health services in charge of vector control said Uganda is on course to achieve its plan of eliminating some NTDs like river blindness by 2020.
She, however, noted that this could fail due to inadequate similar NTD interventions in neighbouring countries like South Sudan and the DRC.
“Recently the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) convened a meeting for Uganda and DRC ministries of health and promising recommendations were made,” she said.
“Nonetheless, the issue is still wanting because South Sudan and other neighbouring countries were not involved.”
Dr. Tukahebwa was speaking at the opening of the 6th meeting of the advisory committee on eliminating river blindness in Uganda at the Kampala Serena Hotel on Tuesday.
Explaining that NTDs easily spread across borders, she implored the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) to intervene, convene and then address the situation.
WHO country representative, Dr. Wondimagegnehu Alemu, praised Uganda for leading the campaign to eliminate river blindness and said more effort is needed to synchronise interventions on border side of DRC.
“Cross-border movemnents due to social, economic, and political reasons should also be put into consideration when decisions to stop mass drug administration are made,” Alemu said.
River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, is spread through bites of small black flies that breed around fast-flowing water sources.
The disease is the second-leading infectious cause of blindness worldwide, according to WHO, affecting more than 18 million people across the world and has made 300,000 blind. It is recorded to be most prevalent in Africa and South America.
Colombia, a South American nation, last month became the first country in the world to eradicate river blindness through the distribution of an anti-parasitic drug in affected parts and a sustained health education campaign in local communities.
In Uganda, river blindness is endemic in 35 districts with an estimated 1.4 million people affected and at least 3.5 million at risk of infection. That means almost 10% of the current Ugandan population is at risk.
Uganda in 2007 became the first African country to adopt a phased approach to eliminate river blindness -- combining mass treatment with ivermectin twice a year with the killing of the black flies.
As a result, transmission has been stopped in 11 of the 18 districts where the new approach is being implemented.
The districts include Mitooma, Kabarole, Nebbi, Mbale, Kibaale, Sironko, Bududa, Maracha, Bushenyi, Kyenjojo, and Manafwa.
Uganda’s target is to eliminate the disease in the 18 selected districts by 2015, and the rest of the country by 2020.
Dr. Jane Aceng, the director general of health services, noted that NTDs had become a major contributor to the high disease burden in most developing countries including Uganda.
She said eliminating them would help alleviate poverty.
The conference attracted dozens of health experts from across the world including the coordinator of the Carter Center in the US, Dr. Frank Richards.
The Carter Center is a leader in the fight to eliminate river blindness across the world.
Uganda worried about cross-border infections