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Published On: Mon, Jul 29th, 2013

Former President Jimmy Carter congratulates Colombia as first in the Americas to eliminate river blindness

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter today congratulated President Juan Manuel Santos and the people of Colombia for becoming the first of six countries in the Americas to eliminate river blindness, according to a Carter Center press release today.

Colombia is the first country in the Americas to eliminate river blindness and is the first country in the world to apply for and be granted verification of elimination of river blindness by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Health worker administering Mectizan Image/Video Screen Shot

Health worker administering Mectizan
Image/Video Screen Shot

The official ceremony was held today in Bogotá and joining President and Mrs. Carter were Colombia Minister of Health and Social Protection Dr. Alejandro Gaviria Uribe, representatives of the Colombia government, the Carter Center’s River Blindness Elimination Program and the Carter Center’s OEPA, Colombia’s National Institute of Health, and partners including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Merck/MSD, the Lions Clubs International Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Colombia’s achievement demonstrates that a future free from river blindness is possible for everyone in the Americas, and is an inspiration for the Carter Center’s recent commitment to not only control the spread of river blindness but to eliminate the disease wherever we are fighting it in Africa,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, founder of The Carter Center, which has led the campaign to wipe out the disease in Latin America through its Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas (OEPA).  Since 1986, The Carter Center has continued to pioneer multiple disease elimination approaches in Africa and Latin America.

In today’s press release, The Carter Center describes the verification process:

Colombia, together with its partners OEPA and PAHO, which is a regional body of the WHO, eliminated river blindness using a strategy of twice per year community-wide administration of the medicine ivermectin (Mectizan®, donated by Merck) to all people in the afflicted area.  Community volunteers, leaders, and promoters played a major role in health education and distribution of the drug and were largely responsible for sustaining it over the course of 17 years.

Mectizan treatments were stopped in 2008, after which three years of post-treatment surveillance were required by the WHO to determine if transmission of the parasite would recur before elimination could be declared.

A team of international experts visited Colombia under the auspices of the WHO to verify the elimination of the disease from the country.  On April 5, 2013, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan provided Colombia with official notification that WHO verified elimination of the disease.  The WHO is the only organization that can officially recognize the elimination of a disease. 

“The Colombia river blindness program did more than just rid the country of a horrible disease. The community focus of the program empowered people to take on other community improvement projects, like improving access to safe water and basic sanitation, providing better nutrition and health care, and even constructing a school.  The river blindness elimination program ended a disease and created  hope,” said Alba Lucia Morales, health education adviser with the Center’s OEPA and a Colombian national who has observed development in the formerly endemic area over nearly two decades.

When the OEPA program was launched in 1993, an estimated 500,000 people in the Americas were at risk of river blindness in six countries: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela.

Today, as the result of highly successful national programs, transmission of this once ‘neglected’ tropical disease has been broken in 96 percent of the region and no one need fear becoming blind from river blindness in the Americas.

Mexico and Guatemala, formerly the region’s two most endemic countries, have interrupted transmission of river blindness, halted Mectizan treatment, and begun their post-treatment surveillance. Ecuador, having completed its three years of post-treatment surveillance, has filed a request to WHO for a verification team visit.

Transmission of the disease remains only in the hard-to-reach border area between Venezuela and Brazil in Amazon rainforest.

The Carter Center, whose river blindness program was established in 1996, currently assists national ministries of health in 10 countries in Africa and the Americas to conduct health education and distribute the medicine Mectizan®, donated by Merck. Mectizan kills the parasite’s larvae in the human body, preventing blindness and transmission of the disease to others.

As of 2012, The Carter Center has distributed more than 170 million treatments of Mectizan through community-based channels to eliminate or control the disease.

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About the Author

- Writer, Co-Founder and Executive Editor of The Global Dispatch. Robert has been covering news in the areas of health, world news and politics for a variety of online news sources. He regularly writes about infectious disease news for Examiner.com and administers the Outbreak News section of The Global Dispatch.

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