|Press Release WHO/8
5 February 1999
MILLION PEOPLE PROTECTED
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso - Through its 25 year history The Onchocerciasis* Control Programme in West Africa (OCP) has protected more than 34 million people from onchocerciasis or "river blindness". More than 400 000 cases of blindness have been prevented. At least 1.5 million people have been completely cured from infection, and over 11 million children born since 1974, when the Programme was launched, are not at risk of going blind due to river blindness.
Control of the disease has opened up 25 million hectares of fertile land for agricultural production, land which was previously deserted out of fear of the disease. This land can feed 17 million people annually applying traditional cultivation methods.
"These figures prove that OCP is one of the most successful projects in the field of health and development in Africa," says OCP Director DR K. Yankum Dadzie.
The Programme has also contributed largely to manpower development in the region: 800 staff have acquired technical and managerial competence while serving OCP; around 500 have received high-level academic training and middle-level in-service training financed by the Programme.
The 25th anniversary of OCP will be celebrated through ceremonies in Ouagadougou, Burkino Faso, as well as in other participating and donor countries between 8 and 13 February 1999. The high point of the anniversary celebrations will be the unveiling of a commemorative river blindness statue by the President of the Republic of Burkina Faso.
Based on a partnership lasting 25 years between eleven West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d`Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo), 22 donors and institutions, including four United Nations Agencies (World Bank, FAO, WHO and UNDP), as well as the private sector. OCP is now approaching its end and handing over to the participating countries.
Before the creation of OCP in 1974, river blindness was a real blight in West Africa. Before 1974, the prevalence of onchocercal infection was in the order of 60% in the major part of the Programme area. In some villages, up to 10% of the population was blinded by the bite of the simuli. Today, the risk of onchocercal blindness has been eliminated throughout the OCP area.
In the areas treated for a long time, i.e. 60% of the total OCP area, where large-scale larviciding has ceased practically throughout, the risk of new cases has been virtually eliminated and the main activity is now limited to strict surveillance. In the remaining 40% of the area in which control operations started more that ten years later, larviciding is combined with the distribution of ivermectin or Mectizan(R), an effective drug against the disease provided free of cost by Merck & Co. Active research is underway to identify a drug which could kill the adult worm.
In most of the eleven Participating Countries there are now teams down to the district level capable of undertaking river blindness control.
"The best approach to consolidate the achievements of OCP is to make them known," says Dr Dadzie. "The future challenge of the programme is to sustain the progress by integrating river blindness surveillance in a comprehensive surveillance system, including the main endemic diseases in the region, which could build upon the methods of work, the structures and the systems established by OCP."
One of the objectives of the celebration of the anniversary is to mobilize the different partners, the concerned populations and the donors and increase their awareness of the need to retain the achievements of OCP so that river blindness shall never reemerge as a public health problem.
* Onchocerciasis or river blindness is transmitted by the bite of the simuli. The disease is caused by the release of minute worms (microfilariae) in the skin of the victim by the adult, mature worms (macrofilariae). These minute worms give rise to unbearable itching, depigmentation of the skin and eventually blindness. Microfilariae can be treated by ivermectin a treatment to be continued during about 15 years until the death of the macrofilariae.
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