By Taddeo Bwambale
At least 200 million people have been treated for river blindness in endemic countries in Africa and Latin America, under a campaign to eliminate the debilitating disease.
The 200 millionth patient was treated in Uganda in Lamwo district on Wednesday.
Sixty-year-old Christopher Olanya took four oral Ivermectin pills, amidst the chanting of spectators from across the globe that thronged the district.
River blindness, known scientifically as onchocerciasis, is a parasitic infection that can cause intense itching, skin discoloration, rashes, and eye disease that leads to permanent blindness.
It is transmitted through bites of female black flies that breed in fast-flowing streams and rivers, hence the commonly known name of "river blindness".
At its peak, river blindness was endemic in 35 districts, with an estimated 4.2 million people at risk of infection.
Olanya, a resident of Abamu village in Lamwo district said he contracted the disease in the 1970s.
“We used to graze cows near River Aswa which was a breeding ground for black flies that used to bite us. I developed a skin rash and gradually fell ill,” he told New Vision.
Now partially blind, Olanya walks with the aid of a walking stick or a guide.
Olanya is one of more than 1.2 million people in northern Uganda districts that have been most affected by river blindness.
The global campaign to eliminate river blindness started in the 1990s, under a partnership between the Carter Center and several countries in Africa and Latin America, including Uganda.
(CREDIT: Alberto Cuadra: Chronicle)
Only one country (Colombia) out of 35 endemic countries is certified by the World Health Organisation to have eliminated river blindness. Other countries on the verge of eliminating the disease are Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela and Uganda.
Dr Frank Richards, the director of the Carter Center’s river blindness elimination programme said Uganda was chosen to host the 200 millionth treatment because of its progress in fighting the disease.
Prevalence of river blindness in Uganda has dropped from 70% in 1993 to about 5% presently.
In 2007, Uganda was the first African country to adopt the approach of eliminating the disease by combining mass treatment of patients and spraying to kill the black fly.
Last year, Lamwo district recorded 90% coverage in mass treatment of river blindness.
A recent report by the Uganda onchocerciasis elimination expert advisory committee on last week shows that transmission the disease has been transmitted in 14 focal sites out of 17.
The 14-member advisory team comprises local and international health experts who meet annually to review progress and advise government on efforts to eliminate river blindness.
At its meeting last Thursday, the advisory committee confirmed that transmission of river blindness had been stopped in Moyo district and recommended that mass treatment be halted.
Arua, Nebbi, Zombo, Buliisa, Hoima and Masindi are classified as areas where transmission may have been interrupted, after recording a drop in number of infected persons and black flies.
Dr Charles Ayoo Akiya, the Lamwo district health officer said mass treatment against river blindness and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) had reduced infections in the district.