Onchocerciasis, or riverblindness, is a disease that has long brought suffering and misery to millions of Africans. But now, riverblindness is being effectively tackled by a alliance of governments, the private sector, and international agencies, including the World Bank. The disease, borne by blackflies that breed in fast-flowing rivers, causes blindness in about 10 percent of its victims and has forced the depopulation of large tracts of arable, river bottom farmland.
In a swath of Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia and from Angola to Mozambique, nearly 500,000 people have severely impaired vision, 350,000 more are blind, and 6.5 million are infected with riverblindness. Ongoing control programs have reduced these totals to less than half of what they were in the early 1970s.
In 1974, the Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP) was established, bringing together the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Since then, OCP has halted transmission and eliminated the disease as a public health problem in a region that covers 40 million people in 11 West African countries. In its 28 years, OCP has prevented 600,000 cases of blindness and eighteen million children born in now-controlled areas have been spared the risk of the disease. Twenty-five million hectares of fertile land have been made safe for cultivation and resettlement. By the end of this year, a total of 5 million years of labor will have been added to the economies of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
The remarkable success of OCP led in 1996 to the establishment of the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), which includes the continent’s remaining 19 riverblindness-endemic countries: Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. A key feature of the APOC initiative is Merck & Co. Inc.’s donation of Mectizan, a drug that relieves the symptoms of riverblindness and stops transmission when taken community-wide. By distributing Mectizan in partnership with non-governmental organizations and national governments, APOC already treats 25 million people a year, more than one third of the eventual target population of 60 million.
Africa - Sub-Saharan
African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC)
Updated: September 2002