A Catholic Monthly Magazine

River Blindness

By Dr Murray Sheard

Debilitating Neglected Tropical Disease causes avoidable blindness in sub-Saharan Africa

Imagine thousands of painful parasites crawling under your skin, making their way into your eyes, gnawing away at your optic nerve, slowly stealing your sight and eventually making you go blind. 

This is the harsh reality for millions of people living in sub-Saharan Africa who are affected by a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) called Onchocerciasis, or commonly known as River Blindness. NTD’s infect more than one billion people in the world’s poorest communities of which Africa has the highest burden. They thrive in impoverished, tropical regions where there is poor sanitation, unsafe drinking water, numerous insects to spread disease and little access to health services and Government support. 

Mairige blind by River Blindness

River Blindness is caused by being bitten by the black river flies that infest sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 99% of River Blindness occurs. Worldwide 36 million people are blind, yet 75% of blindness is preventable or treatable. 

In Nigeria, an estimated 31 million people are at risk of blindness, and a variety of debilitating and disfiguring skin conditions caused by River Blindness, where the disease carrying blackfly parasites are still rife. 

The parasites bloom into hundreds of thousands of baby worms. They knot up together into lumps you can feel just under your skin. Those infected rub and rip at their skin, until it becomes thick and rough. They call this Elephant Skin. Even worse is Leopard Skin, where you are suffering so badly, you cut at yourself with knives, hooks and sharp spoons. Deep into your flesh. You’ll do anything to hook out whatever is biting through your nerves. It is torture. The scars leave you looking mottled and blotched – so they call it Leopard Skin. Then the parasites go for your warm, moist eyeballs. Gnawing at everything, they chew through your optic nerves. Your eyesight dims and fades. This is blindness that cannot be reversed.

Wajir’s eyes are safe from River Blindness

Approximately 90% of NTD’s can be treated with medicines. Pharmaceutical company Merck donates the worm-killing antibiotic Mectizan, which must be administered once a year to kill the black fly larvae and stop it from eating away at those affected. If an infected person receives a Mectizan tablet in time, it will kill only the young larvae. That is why it is absolutely crucial that everyone receives their tablets on time, at least once a year. If tablets are missed, the worms in their body may become mature enough to resist Mectizan. These worms will stay in the body, causing parasites, unbearable pain, and life-long blindness. 

Through the generosity of cbm supporters, the crucial Mectizan antibiotics are able to be delivered by cbm-funded field workers to those at risk of being bitten by the blackfly and contracting River Blindness. 

cbm, also known as Christian Blind Mission, is an international Christian development organisation, whose mission includes delivering life-changing medication, support and surgeries to those disadvantaged by poverty and disability. cbm aspires to follow the teachings of Jesus in Luke 10:27 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

Dr Murray Sheard received his PhD in Ethics and Philosophy from the University of Auckland. He has worked in international development for over 15 years and is the Chief Executive Officer of cbm New Zealand. 

Wajir and her great-aunt Mairige










Article supplied. See www.cbmnz.org.nz  for more information.

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