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Transmission of River Blindness, One of the World's Leading Infectious Causes of Blindness, Has Stopped in Ecuador

Media Contact: Ashley Gatewood
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WASHINGTON, DC (March 1, 2010) — Today, the Ministry of Health (MOH) of Ecuador announced that transmission of onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, has stopped in that country. This achievement is the result of the work by MOH workers with support of the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas (OEPA).

The OEPA is a collaboration between the Pan American Health and Education Foundation (PAHEF); The Carter Center; Pan American Health Organization (PAHO); Merck & Co., Inc.; the Centers for Disease Control; Lions Clubs; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the governments of Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Guatemala.

OEPA encourages the six endemic countries within Latin America to provide sustained mass treatment of Mectizan (ivermectin) tablets every six months with the aim of reaching at least 85% of 503,285 persons at risk of the disease in the Americas. Mectizan has been donated by Merck & Co. to fight river blindness since 1987.

The infection is caused by a worm parasite called Onchocerca volvulus that lives just beneath the skin and causes inflammation that damages the skin and eyes. The parasite is transmitted when a black fly bites an infected person, ingests a larval form of the parasite (called a 'microfilaria'), and then transmits it to another person when it bites again. Onchocerciasis was named "river blindness" because the black flies breed in rapidly flowing rivers. Ivermectin prevents the transmission of the infection by killing the microfilaria and so blocking the infection of black flies and transmission of the disease.

Now that transmission has stopped in Ecuador, the country will be under surveillance for three years. As long as no new cases are detected in the surveillance period, Ecuador may request formal certification procedures by the World Health Organization to declare that river blindness has been eliminated in the country.

Merck & Co. has made a commitment to continue donating Mectizan to areas in need until river blindness is fully eradicated. Since 1989, PAHEF, an organization improving the health of people throughout the Americas, has facilitated Merck's donation of Mectizan in the Americas, helping PAHO and OEPA to support programs in ministries of health to reach populations in the Americas at-risk of contracting river blindness.

The OEPA program is housed by The Carter Center, which has been a leader in the fight against river blindness in Africa and the Americas by working in thousands of communities in 11 countries. Together with local Lions Clubs and the Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), the Center works closely with national river blindness programs in endemic countries and PAHO in the Western Hemisphere.

In the last 12 months, PAHEF has received a total of US$3,267,000 worth of medication from Merck & Co., Inc. to assist PAHO in its activities to fight river blindness in the Americas. The medication is distributed by nationally-run programs to communities in remaining endemic areas throughout Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela.

"Eliminating river blindness in Ecuador is a major public health victory for the Americas," said Edward L. Kadunc, executive director of PAHEF. "It brings us one step closer to the day when the entire Western Hemisphere is declared free of river blindness."

Over the course of this 20-year partnership, eight million doses totaling $51 million have been distributed throughout six endemic countries in the Americas. The tablets are taken twice annually, with treatment continuing until transmission of the disease is eliminated in each community.

More than 120 million people in 30 developing nations are at risk of contracting river blindness, a disease of poverty that robs people of their sight—and therefore their livelihoods and independence.

River blindness was once the world's second-leading infectious cause of blindness. However, due to wide distribution of Mectizan tablets through mass treatment programs and other control measures such as insecticide use to control black fly breeding, river blindness has been in decline since the 1990s.

In 2007, Colombia became the first country in the world to interrupt transmission of the disease on a national level. In 2008, the member states of the Pan American Health Organization committed to a 2012 target of interrupting transmission of river blindness throughout the remaining endemic countries in the Americas.


Founded in 1968, the Pan American Health and Education Foundation (PAHEF) is a public 501(c)(3) foundation dedicated to fostering public health programs in the Americas that address major health concerns. PAHEF improves the lives of people throughout the Americas by working with the public and private sectors as well as major public health research, policy, and development groups.




Media Contact:

Ashley Gatewood |  | 202-974-3727

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