How Is Ethiopia Tackling The Crippling Effect Of River Blindness?

 How Is Ethiopia Tackling The Crippling Effect Of River Blindness?

As part of the drive to restore the sight of 500,000 people suffering from cataracts after screening at least 1,000,000 across the world, the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation (TKRF) went to Ethiopia. After setting up camps to undertake this massive project, the fourth nation after Nepal, Bhutan, and Ghana was Ethiopia. On April 1, 2023, it was reported that approximately 1.8 million Ethiopians suffer from cataracts. However, 80 per cent of the blindness caused by cataracts can be cured. But Ethiopians have to fear another cause of blindness apart from cataracts, it is Onchocerciasis. The disease is commonly known as River Blindness.

What Is River Blindness?

Onchocerciasis is caused by Onchocera volvulus, a type of worm. The disease is parasitic by nature; both the adult worms, which can be a metre long and the female worms can reproduce about 2,000 worms every day. The immature worms are transmitted by the infected blood-sucking blackfly into human bodies. These flies breed in flowing rivers and streams, hence the name River Blindness.

Typically, these worms live under the skin of humans, move throughout the skin of the body, and travel to the eyes too. When the worms move under the skin, the person affected experiences skin rashes, discolouration, and extreme itching. Once the worms reach the eyes, without early detection and medication, they can cause permanent blindness.

Ethiopia And River Blindness: Facts & Figures

Africa is one of the continents that experiences the greatest number of cases of Onchocerciasis. Both South America and Asia have reported having people suffering from River Blindness.

  • It has been estimated that 99 per cent of the world’s River Blindness patients are from Africa.
  • Almost 31 countries are hit by the disease.
  • In 2001, with an annual drug drive to distribute anti-River Blindness medicine, control over Onchocerciasis started in Ethiopia’s endemic communities.
  • In 2013, the effort was pushed to the level of trying to get rid of the parasite across the country.
  • In 2014, the Ethiopian Onchocerciasis Elimination Expert Advisory Committee (EOEEAC) was established to eliminate the ‘neglected tropical disease,’ which is often termed as a disease affecting poor people.
  • It was noted that Onchocerciasis has a debilitating effect on the individual, their family, the community, the overall public health, and the development of the region affected by the disease.
  • In 2018, in Amhara’s six districts, drug distribution could be stopped against Onchocerciasis.
  • There was a cross-border venture between Ethiopia and Sudan for River Blindness, and in 2018, with Metema-Galabat, the countries were able to free one million plus people of Onchocerciasis.
  • In 2021, the Ethiopian Onchocerciasis Elimination Expert Advisory Committee stated that the next place they can stop the drug distribution for the disease is the Oromia region.

Grassroot Leadership Improves River Blindness Condition

Philanthropist Tej Kohli once said about the work of TKRF that to warrant the success of curing unwanted blindness, the communities and their leaders need to get involved. For instance, in Nepal, TKRF works with eight local hospitals and engages the local doctors, nurses, volunteers, and community leaders to organise outreach camps. In these camps, the initial screening happens, and then people suffering from cataracts are taken to a nearby hospital for cataract removal surgery.

Similarly, to have an effective and successful outcome in eradicating Onchocerciasis disease, community leaders need to be active. One example of how leadership worked in eliminating the mass drug drive for Onchocerciasis elimination is Berihun Takele. He is the village chief (the kebele leader) of the Amhara region (the first to have stopped drug distribution for River Blindness). Takele and his team took on the challenge of protecting the villagers from Onchocerciasis. His volunteers, known as Wudi Gemzu, educated, distribute medication and caught black flies for testing.

Tekele and the volunteers of his team waded the rivers and sat there for hours to catch the flies for the Onchocerciasis, despite the dangers of crocodiles. For them, preventing River Blindness is more vital than being afraid of the crocs, which they are not.

The distribution of medicine and mass administration of anti-Onchocerciasis have worked since the number of flies captured that have tested negative for the disease has significantly risen. As a result, the number of people infected by the bite has gone down.

A Blindness-Free Future

Like the noble-hearted Tej Kohli, Takele too believes that the hardworking community can create a society that is free of unwanted blindness. Both believe it will result in creating a thriving, developed community and an educated and sustainable region where everyone can thrive with knowledge and prosperity while enjoying a blindness-free life.

Clare Louise

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