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With so much attention and publicity surrounding well-known diseases, it is easy to focus all donation and aid efforts only on the diseases on which the public is most informed. However one disease that needs more attention and support is Onchocerciasis, more commonly known as river blindness.

River blindness is a skin and eye disease caused by a parasite and is the second leading cause of blindness. An estimated 37 million people are affected by this disease worldwide and over 90 million people still remain at risk.

River blindness is primarily in West and Central Africa; however, this disease is also prevalent in Latin America and Yemen. The disease is not typically contracted by a single bite, so travelers are not at a high risk to river blindness, just the individuals living in the epidemic areas.

Half a million people are visually impaired by this disease and 270,000 people are already blinded. 99 percent of infected individuals live within 30 countries. River blindness also has a detrimental impact on the economy; an estimated 30 million dollars a year are lost due to this disease.

River blindness is spread through black fly bites; after the initial bite larvae forms and turns in to worms inside the host body.  The larvae creates severe skin itching, inflammation and eventually vision impairment or blindness. This disease also reduces life expectancy by up to 15 years and causes psychological impairment due to the infected person’s becoming isolated.

The African Program for Onchocerciasis Control was created in 1995 to help control the spread of this disease; however, it is hard to control because there is currently no vaccine for river blindness.

There is a drug people suffering from this can take to reduce the larvae, which in turn reduces the itching and can prevent vision impairment, but since it does not kill the adult worms it is not a cure. Antibiotics are also available and are typically given out in six-week doses, but they have not yet been proven effective.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation classify this disease as a neglected infectious disease and their goal is to draw attention to river blindness and find a cure. The Gates Foundation is working to eliminate this disease by developing new treatments.

Currently the Gates Foundation is investing in mosquito control methods to help prevent breakouts, searching for ways to detect the disease early on and supporting efforts made to develop a vaccine.

Olivia Hadreas

Sources: Gates Foundation
Photo: Your Dictionary