Last month saw an amazing step forward in the fight to eliminate onchocerciasis. Ecuador was verified as free of onchocerciasis – also known as river blindness – after treating endemic communities since 1990 and three years with active case surveillance with no cases found. Ecuador is just the second country in the world, after Colombia, to have officially eliminated the disease.
This is a really exciting milestone for Ecuador and for the global effort to eliminate onchocerciasis. Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is a painful and debilitating disease. Caused by a parasitic worm and spread by the bite of black flies, the disease causes intense itching, eye damage, and eventually blindness. As with most neglected tropical diseases, onchocerciasis doesn’t kill, but disables and keeps men and women out of work. Studies suggest that from 2011 to 2030, onchocerciasis will be responsible for more than $4 billion in productivity losses, keeping families and communities in an endless cycle of poverty.
The disease was considered particularly hard to eliminate in Ecuador because the flies there are unusually effective at transmitting the disease. Ecuador was able to achieve elimination through a multi-year effort combining community education and mass administration of the drug ivermectin (donated by Merck) in affected areas.
The fight against onchocerciasis isn’t over. Onchocerciasis in the Americas is now cornered in one just one remote part of the Amazon rainforest, on the border between Brazil and Venezuela, but eliminating it there is a particular challenge because of the inaccessibility of the terrain and the movements of the nomadic Yanomami people who live there. A much bigger challenge is in Africa, where millions of people are still at risk of the disease.
Onchocerciasis is just one of a number of diseases collectively known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). These diseases of poverty together affect over a billion people. Many of them are easily prevented for on average fifty cents per year per person, yet they persist due to a lack of adequate resources to deliver the donated drugs and develop some improved tools.
Nonetheless, the world has made tremendous progress against these diseases in the last couple of years. In January 2012, the Gates Foundation joined partners from the pharmaceutical industry, non-governmental organizations, donor- and endemic-country governments and others to endorse the London Declaration, a collective commitment to meet the WHO’s 2020 goals to eradicate, eliminate or control 10 NTDs, including onchocerciasis.
These partners all agreed to major commitments to support this fight, and these investments are already bearing fruit. A progress report released in April showed that nearly 1.35 billion doses of donated drugs were donated last year, an increase of more than a third from 2011. New tools to diagnose and treat NTDs, including onchocerciasis, are coming down the pipeline. With continued commitment and investment, success stories like Ecuador will keep coming.
For more information on these diseases and the London Declaration partnership, please visit Uniting to Combat NTDs.