August 25, 2014, 3:07 pm
By Frank Richards
Dr. Frank Richards leads the Carter Center’s efforts to eliminate river blindness (also known as onchocerciasis), a parasitic disease transmitted by the bites of infected black flies. On Aug. 12, 2014, The Carter Center held a special ceremony in northern Uganda to celebrate the distribution of the 200 millionth Mectizan® drug treatment, used to eliminate river blindness, supported by The Carter Center worldwide. The following is based on Dr. Richards’ speech at the event.
Today, we celebrate the remarkable success of Lamwo District in improving drug treatment coverage in its onchocerciasis elimination program. But we also celebrate the Carter Center’s 200 millionth and 200 million and first mass treatments with ivermectin tablets, also known as Mectizan®, donated by Merck, an American pharmaceutical company. Since the value of each treatment can reach up to $6, depending on the dose, we are talking about a donation reaching approximately $1 billion.
Over many years and in many countries, we have assisted ministries of health in distributing two hundred million treatments. Presently, we work with ministries of health in six countries in the Americas, where elimination efforts have been so successful that 96 percent of Mectizan treatments have been stopped, and we believe that four of the six countries already have completely wiped out this terrible disease forever. The Carter Center also has helped deliver Mectizan in Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda. But we picked Lamwo District for our celebration today because of the remarkable leadership this district has shown in a key area of the country that must improve its performance if Uganda is to eliminate onchocerciasis by 2020.
The 200 millionth and 200 million and first treatments took place in Wigweng South village, Mura parish, Padibe East Sub County.
The 200 millionth treatment was given to 60-year-old Christopher Olanya who was blinded from onchocerciasis. He came to this celebration to speak about ivermectin and tell us he had taken the tablets too late, although he perceived that the medicine had slightly helped his sight. He also told us that his nickname in the village was Gwok-gweyi, which means ‘Dog barks at you.’ When he said that today, many people in the audience laughed… But you know, when you think about it, it is sad to have that nickname, and it shows how onchocerciasis and other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) marginalize their victims.
The 200 million and first treatment was given to a 14-year-old girl named Nancy Akanyo. She spoke to us, too, and everyone was greatly impressed by her outgoing character, energy, talent, and intelligence. We would all agree that she has a bright future, one that we will not let be destroyed by river blindness or any other NTD.
In a sense, we have seen the past, represented by the 200 millionth treatment and Mr. Olanya, and the future, represented by the 200 million and first treatment and Ms. Akanyo. The future is bright, if we seize the opportunity to improve these treatment programs in northern Uganda.
The Carter Center works in partnership. There is, of course, first and foremost the Ministry of Health of Uganda and the affected communities themselves. A key partner is the donor of the medicine, Merck and the Mectizan Donation Program. Another very special partner is the Lions Clubs International Foundation and its Lions SightFirst Program. And there are many, many more partners in this effort!
Let me again congratulate the district of Lamwo and its leadership in increasing treatment coverage in a short time from 36 percent to over 90 percent. My colleagues and I were on a radio broadcast last night along with Lamwo District Chairman Mathew Ochen Akiya. I was most impressed with what he said, especially about the need to set and respect goals and targets. We agree that if precise indices had not been established and measured, we would not be here today celebrating Lamwo’s success.
Musicians and dancers celebrate the Carter Center and partners’ 200 millionth and 200 million and first treatments of Mectizan in Wigweng South village, Mura parish, Padibe East Sub County on Aug. 12, 2014. (All Photos: The Carter Center)
It is a long journey to the end of the road. My colleague Dr. Katabarwa of The Carter Center is fond of quoting Socrates. One quote he says often is, “Let him who would move the world first move himself.” I like a quote by Mahatma Ghandi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Let us take from this wonderful celebration new strength and new initiative, so that tomorrow we might think anew and act anew, to eliminate onchocerciasis and other NTDs from Uganda.
While in Uganda, Dr. Richards and Carter Center experts also attended a meeting of the Uganda Onchocerciasis Elimination Expert Advisory Committee. The independent committee announced that transmission of river blindness had been eliminated, interrupted, or suppressed in 15 of 17 originally endemic areas, containing more than 2.7 million Ugandans formerly at risk for the debilitating disease.