Today, Colombia celebrates a great milestone. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), out of 38 endemic countries worldwide, Colombia is the first to eliminate river blindness, a disease transmitted through infected flies that can cause chronic skin lesions, irreversible blindness, or severe visual impairment.
Approximately 123 million people are at risk of infection of river blindness and at least 25.7 million people are currently infected of which 1 million suffer from blindness or visual impairment. River blindness is traditionally controlled via mass drug administration given to affected communities. Fortunately, since 1987, the drug needed to control this disease has been donated free of charge by Merck.
In Colombia, river blindness affected a single community in the municipality of Lopez de Micay in the Cauca State. A remote location reachable only by a 10-hour trip in a small motorboat. In 1996, Colombia began an intensive public health campaign to break the transmission cycle by administering treatment for river blindness to this entire community. These efforts were sustained until 2007 when it was determined that the cycle of transmission had been broken. Mass drug administration was halted in 2008.
In order to receive certification of elimination, Colombia had to undergo a 3-year post-treatment surveillance period where data is collected and analyzed to determine if river blindness is still present in the community. In addition, Colombia had to submit a country dossier to WHO describing the entire history and achievements of their country program.
After a visit by a team of international experts and an extensive review, WHO verified the elimination of river blindness in Colombia and was announced earlier today by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.
This milestone could not have been achieved without the work of many organizations. Merck’s drug donation program has been key in the success of controlling and beginning to eliminate river blindness from the world. The leadership and technical assistance from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Carter Center’s Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) to the six affected countries in the Americas has been essential to reach this milestone.
For USAID, river blindness elimination from the Americas was a specific target set when the Global Health Initiative was launched in 2009. Since then, USAID has worked in close coordination with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and currently funds PAHO and OEPA’s work.
In the Americas, Ecuador is expected to be the next country to receive verification of elimination and Guatemala and Mexico are soon to follow. In the western hemisphere, only one remote area at the border between Brazil and Venezuela continues to be affected by river blindness.
The efforts and success seen in Colombia serve as a model for countries globally and paves a way toward a world free of river blindness.