Carter Center declares early win against river blindness in Ethiopia

Dr. Frank Richards, on the right, in Ethiopia in 2013 talks to villagers about river blindness. Richards leads a Carter Center campaign to eradicate the disease. The Carter Center reports a large region is showing signs of having succeeded in eliminating new cases.

Initial success follows eradication in much of Latin America

The Carter Center has won a first battle against river blindness in the border region between Ethiopia and Sudan.

Dr. Frank Richards, the center's campaign director, said it is stopping mass drug administration in a 7,500 square kilometer area of northwest Ethiopia and a bordering 22,400 square kilometer area of Sudan.

“This is the first stop of mass distribution in Ethiopia for river blindness,” he said.

River blindness has taken the sight of more than 300,000 people and degraded the vision of 800,000. It is one of six tropical diseases the Atlanta-based Carter Center has targeted for eradication. It is helping coordinate the fight with governments and allies such as Lion’s Club International and other health agencies such as Atlanta’s Task Force for Global Health.

Read the AJC’s report from Ethiopia about the campaign.

Richards said there is one hotspot within the area where field researchers found the parasite that causes river blindness in tiny black flies which spread it. Continuing to give the drug to people will break the transmission cycle, so the Carter Center will help coordinate four doses of Mectizan a year to about 15,000 people to snuff out the hotspot, Richards said.

There are two other districts in the country that are showing success and could move away from mass treatments in the near future, he said.

“It’s definite progress,” Richards said, though there is a long road ahead. River blindness exists in more than 25 African countries and threatens 120 million people. The center began its work in 2013, and other countries are at work to eliminate it, but it will take probably decades.

The Carter Center helped bring river blindness to its knees in the Western Hemisphere. The disease ranged from southern Mexico to to northern South America. Richards helped lead a campaign that eliminated it except for a small remote area on the border of Brazil and Venezuela.

The Carter Center is trying to close in on a second illness it is helping eliminate, Guinea worm disease. When it started in 1986, there were 3.5 million cases in 21 countries in Africa and Asia.

The center reported Wednesday that 53 cases were reported in 2019.

The disease is now restricted to Chad, South Sudan, Angola and Cameroon. No human cases have been reported for two years in Ethiopia or four years in Mali, but the two countries are still considered endemic.

Atlanta has become a world center for international health, with organizations such as The Carter Center, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Task Force for Global Health, CARE, MAP International, regional medical schools and other organizations.