By Taddeo Bwambale
Uganda is on course to eradicate Onchocerciasis (river blindness) in the country by 2020, the state minister for primary health care, Sarah Opendi has said.
The disease is spread through bites of small black flies that breed around fast-flowing water sources.
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.
In 2007, Uganda became the first African country to adopt a new approach to eliminate the disease combining mass treatment with ivermectin twice a year with the killing of the black flies.
Last year, President Yoweri Museveni launched a mass drug administration campaign and aerial spraying exercise to fight river blindness.
According to the minister, transmission of river blindness has been stopped in 11 of the 18 districts where the new approach is being implemented.
The districts include Nebbi, Mbale, Sironko, Bududa, Kabarole, Kyenjojo, Manafwa, Kibaale, Maracha, Bushenyi, and Mitooma.
“These achievements continue to demonstrate that river blindness elimination is possible on the continent of Africa,” the minister said.
Following Uganda’s success, Ethiopia and Nigeria are among other African countries that have recently adopted the model of elimination to put an end to the debilitating disease.
Uganda’s target is to eliminate the disease in the selected districts by 2015, and the rest of the country by 2020.
A visiting team from The Carter Centre in the US has described Uganda’s achievement in eliminating the disease as ‘impressive.’
“Other countries thought elimination was impossible in Africa, but Uganda’s achievement is an international success story,” said Emily Staub, the associate director for health programmes.
In the early 1990s, The Carter Center founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, along with other partners helped Uganda to start river blindness control using the drug ivermectin.
Ivermectin, taken as oral pills, kill the larvae of parasites in the human body, helping to prevent blindness and transmission of the disease to others.
The approach helped to reduce prevalence of the disease in communities from 70% in 1993 to below 7% presently.
Globally, Onchocersiasis is present in 36 countries in Africa, the Arab peninsula and the Americas. Out of some 120 million people at risk, 96% are in Africa. Of the 36 countries where the disease is endemic, 30 are in Sub-Sahara Africa.
The disease causes severe itching and painful nodules around the hip and rib cage, and eye lesions which can lead to impaired vision and blindness. It also causes ugly skin disease looking like leopard skin.
At least 5,400 people are blind or visually impaired due to river blindness in Kitgum, Lamwo and Pader districts where another strain of river blindness strain is prevalent.
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Uganda to end river blindness by 2020