Farmers leave the most fertile land. Children are left to care for their elders. Economic productivity is greatly reduced. These are just some of the devastating effects of the blinding disease onchocerciasis, prevalent in African and Latin American countries. Under a blazing sun, Yanatou continuously swats at the black flies swarming around her son Hassan’s legs. She waits patiently with hundreds of others in Makouossap, her village in Cameroon, for the drug Mectizan® that will ward off the blindness caused by the flies. Yanatou knows what the disease can do. “Our grandparents were blind when they passed away. We thought it was part of our life,” she says. “Before the Mectizan reached our community, we did not know that this disease was curable. Here we used to call it ‘Peau de leopard’ [leopard skin] because of the skin rashes it causes. But we also knew that it would drive you to blindness.” Lions and LCIF have been fighting onchocerciasis, or river blindness, since 1993. Lions’ efforts received a big boost recently when LCIF partnered with a program of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates to carry out river blindness control programs in four African countries. More than $1 million will help treat 5.3 million people. Yanatou and her family and many others will avoid the sad fate of their older relatives. A Blinding, Painful Disease In some West African communities about 50 percent of men over the age of 40 have been blinded by onchocerciasis, and at one time annual economic losses were estimated at $30 million. A total of 120 million people are at risk for the disease and half a million are already blind because of it, according to the World Health Organization. Onchocerciasis is referred to as “river blindness” because it’s transmitted by a fly that breeds along rivers. Although the most fertile area, people vacate the area out of fear of infection. After long-term exposure to repeated fly bites, children and adults become infected when the fly leaves a parasite in the body that begins to grow and spread. The parasite is usually noticeable through a raised nodule on the skin. In addition to causing blindness, the disease also causes painful, disfiguring skin rashes. LCIF and Lions have aggressively combated the disease through SightFirst, providing nearly $30 million in funding for onchocerciasis control and elimination programs since 1993 when the first grant was awarded for activity in Cameroon. LCIF is working with seven nongovernmental organizations as well as local ministries of health to fight the disease in 15 countries in Latin America and Africa. SightFirst grants have helped fund 127 million Mectizan treatments to date, but have also trained tens of thousands of health workers and community distributors. Mectizan is provided free by Merck, Inc. This year LCIF partnered with Noor Dubai to carry out river blindness control programs in four African countries: Cameroon, Mali, Uganda and Ethiopia. Developed by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Noor Dubai (“Sight Dubai” in Arabic) provides preventative eye care services throughout Africa and the Middle East. Due to the great success of the partnership, Noor Dubai is establishing a foundation to continue eye health care programs and develop a longer-term partnership with LCIF aimed at sustaining SightFirst programs. Making a Difference Lions play a key role in all aspects of controlling river blindness, coordinating the distribution around the seasons. If there is heavy rain, they can’t reach remote areas. Other times villagers are busy in the field planting or harvesting. Lions drive hours to reach even the most remote villages, ensuring that no individual or community is overlooked. The outreach effort requires massive planning and thousands of volunteers, including Lions, health care workers, community leaders and ministry of health workers. Lions have been vital in establishing synergy between all groups. SightFirst funding helps provide training for volunteers who distribute the Mectizan, educate communities and track results. More than 34,000 health workers and community distributors were trained in 2008 in Cameroon alone. The Lions’ work is not done after the drug is handed out. In addition to checking for side effects, Lions help track results to show the effectiveness of the drug and determine areas where elimination is close. In parts of Mexico and Guatemala onchocerciasis transmission has been interrupted, according to health officials. Just last year Colombia became the first country to announce the end of transmission of the disease. Experts predict eliminating the need for treatment by 2012 in Latin America. Funding from Campaign SightFirst II will ensure that programs to control and eliminate onchocerciasis remain a priority. Villagers now understand how the disease can be halted. “We live in a very isolated community, and seeing strangers is quite rare,” says Yanatou. “When so many of them are here, we know it is for the drug distribution.” Hassan is not able to take the drug because of his age. But one day he will be allowed to take the medication. “I want a bright future for him,” says Yanatou. ‘I want him to go to school and become what he wants to be.” She adds, “The people who make this medicine possible–thank you.”
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