Onchocerciasis Control Programme

Closure Ceremony

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
5 December 2002

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen, Dear colleagues,

It gives me real pleasure to be with you to mark the completion of this unique programme. It is a rare occasion when we can celebrate such a long-term success in global public health.

I am here today to recognize the achievement of thousands of people working together for a greater good.

Together, they have prevented 600,000 cases of blindness. Their efforts meant that 18 million children have grown up free of the threat of river blindness. Because of the people of the Onchocerciasis Control Programme, thousands of farmers are now moving to reclaim 25 million hectares of fertile river land, enough land to feed 17 million people.

To fully understand OCP’s accomplishment, let us recall the devastation river blindness has inflicted on West Africa For centuries, black flies have been injecting parasites into people living near rivers. When the campaign began in West Africa in 1974, 10% of the population in high impact regions was completely blind and 30% had severe visual handicaps. More than 250,000 square kilometres of once-productive river valley had been abandoned.

We can all take pride in OCP. Its objective has been fully met. River-blindness has been eliminated as a public health problem in this part of Africa. The eleven West African countries are alert to, and capable of detecting, any re-appearance of the disease, should it occur. This is a guarantee that the achievements of the Programme will be sustained.

In reaching its ambitious goal of eliminating river blindness, this Programme has been a forerunner in building partnerships and showing the way forward for health development. It is one of the earliest examples of a fruitful partnership with private industry. Also, the OCP partnership with Non-governmental organizations has set an example for mutual support in promoting health development. OCP, together with its partner the African Onchocerciasis Control Programme, has pioneered the decisive role of communities in taking responsibility for improving their own health.

This Programme has helped to train hundreds of Africans in vector control, epidemiology, entomology, environmental sciences and public health management and has become a source of much-needed manpower for national health structures.

OCP started very much as a vertical programme based on aerial larviciding, with only limited involvement of the countries themselves. However, after the introduction of large-scale ivermectin treatment, which requires full country participation, the Programme was increasingly integrated within national health services and became a health system-wide activity.

This approach has gone a step further by transforming the know-how and facilities of OCP into a sub-regional multidisease surveillance centre. I would like to congratulate those who have had the foresight and imagination to develop a single-disease control programme into an inter-country support centre for overall health development.

I would like on behalf of WHO to thank all the partners whose contributions have enabled the Programme to move forward so that today we can call a close to its activities with the assurance that it has succeeded in removing a disabling health problem in West Africa.

Without the unfailing and generous financial and other support from the donors, OCP would never have met its goal. It is indeed an exceptional achievement for a WHO programme to retain a donor community practically unchanged for close to 30 years. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all the donors for remaining with us for such a long period. And here, I wish to pay a special tribute to Merck and Company for making ivermectin available to OCP at no cost.

Also, I would like to thank the World Bank for having so effectively assumed the role of fiscal agent for OCP and so successfully secured the funding of the Programme throughout its lifetime.

But, without the close collaboration and support of the participating countries, OCP could not have succeeded. I therefore wish to express my gratitude to all those in the countries who have contributed to the work of the Programme, ranging from high-level government officials to those who have sat patiently at riversides collecting black flies and those appointed by the communities to carry out ivermectin distribution.

My thanks go to the Expert Advisory Committee, representing the scientific community, for its readiness to give the Programme sound technical and operational advice.

To the Members of the Committee of Sponsoring Agencies, my sincere thanks for overseeing the operations of OCP, organizing its meetings, assuming responsibility for medium-and long-term planning and organizing external evaluation exercises. Also, I recognize the important role played by FAO through support to participating countries in socioeconomic development in the areas freed from onchocerciasis.

The collaboration with non-governmental development organizations in large-scale distribution of ivermectin has to a large extent contributed to the success of the Programme. I wish to express my gratitude to the NGOs for their efforts, together with OCP, to alleviate the burden of river blindness in West Africa.

My thanks also go to the staff of the Programme, for their hard work and for their dedication to achieving the aims and objective of OCP. We know they have all given of their best, working long hours often under trying conditions. I wish them one and all them the best of luck in the future.

So far, I have not mentioned any names, because there are too many who should get credit. But I cannot talk about OCP without pointing to one man who stands out. Without Dr Ebrahim Samba, OCP would not have been what it is today. On behalf of everyone in this hall and millions of people in the region, I would like to thank you, Ebrahim, for your dedication and service to this cause.

And finally, let me thank the Government of Burkina Faso for having hosted the headquarters of OCP, a programme to which the country has been fully attached and to which it has contributed in several ways since its inception.

The accomplishments of this Programme inspire all of us in public health to dream big dreams. It shows we can reach "impossible" goals and lighten the burden of millions of the world’s poorest people. When critics say that the next proposal is too ambitious, that it will be too expensive, it will take too long, that funds will be wasted, that the job will be too complicated or dangerous - tell these critics to remember this day.

Thank you.