River Blindness

As Ghana commemorates 50 years of independence this year, the fight against river blindness there also marks its half century.

This scene of blind men being led by children in Ghana in the early 1950s inspired Sir John Wilson to lead a campaign to try and eliminate this crippling disease. A survey in the early 1950s indicated that a startling 600,000 out of one million inhabitants in northern Ghana were affected by river blindness with 30,000 blind as a result.

The village of Nakong – “the country of the blind” – was to make the deepest impression on Wilson.

“Fifty people met us on the muddy bank of the swollen river. They were like specimens from a medical museum and behind them their village lay silent as a cemetery,” he said.

It is currently thought to infect 18m people with a further 125m considered at risk – all but a few in Africa.

Today the Sissili river is still a breeding ground for the small black simulium flies that transmit the parasitical worms which cause river blindness.Dependent on the river for washing, fishing and farming, the surrounding communities are at risk of infection. They call the disease the Bonkukuli or fly blindness.

Because the fly breeds in fast-flowing rivers, often whole communities have abandoned fertile lands and good fishing grounds to settle on less productive land.

For many of the older generation, it is too late to save their sight.Bawa is the Nakong chief’s elder brother. Afflicted by river blindness for many years, he had to stop working on his farm and struggled to raise his family. A typical day for Bawa starts with him sweeping the space outside his compound, sometimes he will weave grass to make ropes during the day. With limited mobility, he has become isolated and no longer attends social events.

River blindness cannot be cured but it can be prevented. If taken annually for a period of 20 years, Mectizan can stop people from becoming infected.In 1987, manufacturers Merck & Co took the decision to provide the treatment free of charge to people who needed it for as long as necessary. It is now the longest-running drugs donation programme in history and last year, Sightsavers International helped distribute it to some 12m people across West Africa.

For more information on River Blindness visit: http://www.sightsavers.org/What%20We%20Do/Eye%20Conditions/River%20Blindness/World1622.html

For more information on Onchocerciasis (parasite that causes blindness) visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_blindness

For more information on Water Sanitation visit: http://h2osanitationmagazine.blogspot.com/

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