How the battle against river blindness in West Africa was won

More than 20 years after river blindness emptied villages in West Africa (background), communities are now thriving again

Onchocerciasis, commonly known as river blindness, is caused by parasitic worms. The worms are transmitted to humans by biting flies that breed in fast flowing rivers. The disease mainly affects those who live near rivers. Symptoms range from severe itching and skin lesions to total blindness.

In 1974, onchocerciasis was most devastating in central West Africa, where it was not unusual to find 60 percent of the adults in a river valley afflicted with the disease and 3 to 5 percent blind. Villagers were forced to abandon their communities en masse. When the Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP) was started in 1974, some of West African's richest river lands were uninhabited for several kilometres at a stretch.

Today, more than 20 years and US$600 million after the programme was launched, the disease has been controlled through one of the most successful public health campaigns in history. The governments of 11 African nations and 24 donor agencies combined their resources and energies to spray the rivers where the black flies bred and to develop and distribute drugs for treatment or prevention of the disease. Villages once emptied by river blindness are now thriving.

Back to main story: Fragile ecosystems under threat as people resettle disease-freed lands

25 September 1998

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