|Press Release WHO/53
6 October 1999
RIVER BLINDNESS: ITS IMPENDING ELIMINATION SIGNALS A LANDMARK IN PUBLIC/PRIVATE SECTOR COLLABORATION
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland Calls For More Partnerships To Beat Other Major Diseases
Only a generation ago, onchocerciasis popularly known as river blindness blinded hundreds of thousands of people annually in West Africa, leading to loss of income, independence and economic activity as people abandoned the cultivation of 25 million hectares of fertile lands along riverbanks across West Africa where the blackfly, the transmission vector of the disease, lived and bred.
Now, however, thanks to a landmark example of public/private-sector collaboration, the transmission of the disease is on the verge of elimination in West Africa. An estimated 12 million children, who would have lived with the risk of being blinded by onchocerciasis, have grown up without that risk to be independent and productive adults. On the 25 million hectares of land now reclaimed for cultivation, enough food is produced to feed 17 million people per year.
Today, a statue of a boy leading a blind man, an image which has become recognised the world-over as synonymous with the fight to eliminate river blindness as a public health and socio-economic problem, was unveiled at WHO headquarters in Geneva to mark this achievement. Dignitaries including former US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, Mrs Eveline Herfkens, Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, World Bank President James Wolfensohn, the Chief Executive Officer of Merck & Co, Inc, Ray Gilmartin and WHO Regional Directors for Africa, Dr Ebrahim Samba and for the Eastern Mediterranean, Dr Hussein A-R Gezairy joined WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland at the event.
This event is meant not only to crown the river blindness achievement, but act as a symbol of the way forward in overcoming the deaths and disabilities due to communicable diseases and improving the health of the world's people.
"Since I have been Director-General, WHO has been reaching out to new partners in its effort to conquer disease. We have strengthened ties with other UN agencies and established good collaboration with a handful of private-sector companies. But there is the potential to stretch that net much wider and, if we do so, we all stand to gain. The unveiling of the statue here today should stand for that recognition of what public/private sector partnerships can do, and a beginning of a new era in this field," said WHO Director-General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland at the unveiling.
"In 1974, when WHO joined with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the World Bank and, later, with Merck & Co which provided ivermectin free of cost, we had only the confidence that our institutions, together, could overcome river blindness. There was no track record. We embarked into the unknown, and we won. Now we must use the experience we gained in the fight against other public health challenges," added Dr Brundtland.
The statue itself, which is also found at the headquarters of Merck & Co, the World Bank, the Carter Center, commemorates the success of three WHO/Pan-American Health Organization-led programmes: the Onchocerciasis Control Programme in West Africa (OCP) operating in eleven countries; the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) covering nineteen countries outside West Africa; and the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) present in six countries. A locally-made statue is also found at the headquarters of OCP/APOC in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
OCP - this year celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary - has brought the burden of the disease in West Africa to practically nil and the Programme will cease operations in 2002. APOC became operational in 1996 and will continue its support to national control until 2007 while OEPA aims at eliminating the disease in the Americas by 2007.
"OCP was a pathfinder. Since then, other major partnerships between WHO and the public/private sector have been working to eliminate diseases such as leprosy and lymphatic filariasis, to eradicate polio and guinea worm, to roll back malaria and to stop the spread of tuberculosis, among other diseases. We cannot make progress against many public health problems without the massive involvement of the private sector and nongovernmental organizations. We have to roll up our sleeves and go to the private sector, armed with evidence showing why healthy workers and consumers are in the best business interests of stakeholders.
"When I was elected Director-General last year, I told the World Health Assembly that the private sector has an important role to play both in technology development and the provision of services. We need open and constructive relations with the private sector and industry, knowing where our roles differ and where they may complement each other. In the next year, I will be meeting many private-sector leaders and I would call on them to come armed with suggestions of how they can contribute to the reduction of the world's disease burden both of communicable and non-communicable diseases. In doing so, everyone gains. Individuals, because they are healthier and more productive. Companies, because they have healthier, more dependable and productive workforces. The world, because scarce development resources can be channelled to other priorities," said Dr Brundtland.
Note: details regarding the disease itself, its transmission, manifestations and achievements of control can be found at the following WHO website: http://www.who.int/ocp/. More details on WHO partnerships to fight infectious diseases can be found in WHO Fact Sheet No 235: http://www.who.int/inf-fs/en/fact235.html________________
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