The Organization for the Prevention of Blindness (OPC) Fights Against Neglected Tropical Diseases
In addition to its comprehensive eye care program, OPC implements a multi-faceted program to fight neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). OPC’s program focuses on five of the NTDs:
- Onchocerciasis (river blindness)
- Lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis)
- Schistosomiasis (snail fever or bilharzia)
- Soil-transmitted helminthiasis
OPC focuses on these five diseases because they can be controlled by the large-scale and community-led distribution of proven safe and effective medicines to all the people living in the endemic areas where OPC has over 40 years of experience.
What are Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs)?
NTDs are a diverse group of transmissible diseases prevalent in tropical and subtropical climates. They affect more than one billion people and cost developing economies billions of dollars each year. Communities living in poverty, without adequate sanitation and in close contact with the vectors of infection, are the most vulnerable to NTDs and are the worst affected.
Globally, 40% of the NTD burden lies in Africa. Great progress has been made to combat NTDs over the past several years, however, out of the 19 countries that have been validated as having eliminated one of the five diseases, only four are located on the African continent: Morocco (Trachoma, 2016), Togo (Lymphatic filariasis, 2017), Egypt (Lymphatic filariasis, 2018) and Ghana (Trachoma, 2018). OPC is working to change that.
OPC’s Response to NTDs
OPC’s approach includes supporting project countries to map their disease burden, acquire and consolidate donated NTD drugs, train community drug distributors, distribute disease-fighting drugs, and monitor and evaluate program performance and impact. OPC also works with local stakeholders to raise awareness in communities about hygiene and advocates to improve sanitation conditions in homes and shared spaces, helping to limit the risk of NTD exposure.
As a result of OPC’s programs, millions of people – particularly those living in the most often overlooked communities – gain access to sight-restoring surgeries and receive the treatments they need to stop the NTDs from spreading.
Defining OPC’s Five Focus NTDs
- Trachoma. Trachoma is a painful disease caused by a bacterial infection of the eye. The bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis is commonly found in poor communities that have limited access to adequate sanitation and water. It is transmitted through contact with eye and nose discharge of infected people, and is easily spread through contact with an infected person’s hands or clothes or spread by flies. Children are particularly at risk, as they spend the most time outside. If trachoma is left untreated, continued infection lead to the scarification of the eyelid, which causes the eyelashes to turn inward so they rub the surface of the eye, causing discomfort, pain and permanent damage to the cornea, which leads to irreversible blindness. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended strategy to control trachoma is the SAFE strategy (Surgery, Antibiotics, Face washing and Environmental change), which consists of multiple interventions designed to reduce transmission, treat infection, and correct disease aftereffects.
- Onchocerciasis. Onchocerciasis (river blindness) is a parasitic disease endemic in 30 African countries. The disease is caused by a worm which is transmitted through the bites of infected blackflies. The blackflies are the vector that transmits the parasitic worm from human to human. Once transferred into the human body, the female adult worm produces thousands of baby worms (microfilariae) a day in the human body. These microfilariae move through the skin and eye causing damages such as skin rashes, lesions, itching, skin depigmentation and in the most serious cases, permanent blindness. The WHO recommended strategy for control of onchocerciasis is mass drug distribution.
- Lymphatic filariasis. Lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, is caused by infection with roundworm parasites. The adult worm only lives in the adult lymph system, which oversees body fluid balance and fights infections. The infection is transmitted to humans through the bites of mosquitoes. Long term infection with lymphatic filariasis leads to painful and disfiguring enlargement of arms and legs of people of all ages. Lymphatic filariasis is a physical and psychological disease that has a significant economic impact. Out of the one billion people worldwide at risk of infection, one third live in Africa; more than 120 million people are infected and 40 million live in Africa. The WHO recommended strategy for control of lymphatic filariasis is mass drug distribution in endemic areas.
- Schistosomiasis. Schistosomiasis, also known as snail fever or bilharzia, is a parasitic disease that develops when people are in contact with water contaminated by snails carrying the parasite. The parasite penetrates the body, colonizing blood vessels, and sometimes getting caught in body tissues which causes immune reactions and progressive damage to organs. Transmission occurs through contaminated freshwater sources. People most at risk are those in constant contact with water (fishermen, rice farmers, children at play). Children especially may suffer from poor growth, malnutrition and impaired cognitive development. Long lasting impacts include chronic irreversible diseases such a scarring of the liver, bladder cancer and kidney failure. The WHO recommended strategy for disease elimination is mass drug distribution in endemic areas.
- Soil-transmitted helminthiasis. Soil-transmitted helminthiasis is an infection caused by parasitic roundworms. The worms live in human intestines and affect nutrition by impairing the absorption of nutrients. Symptoms include intestinal pain, malnutrition, weakness and impaired growth and physical development. Children and women of childbearing age are particularly at risk. Approximately 24 percent of the world’s population is infected with soil-transmitted helminths. The WHO recommended strategy for control of soil- transmitted helminthiasis is through controlling illness by conducting periodic drug treatments of populations at risk in endemic areas.
OPC is proud to have provided over 48 million treatments for these five NTDs over 10 years. In 2019 alone, OPC:
- Operated on 6,480 cases of trachoma complications
- Treated 1,928,576 children for schistosomiasis and helminthiasis
- Treated 2,555,378 people for onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis
- Treated 3,127,108 people for trachoma
In Mauritania, a national surveillance survey indicated that only one region required interventions for trachoma complications surgeries.
In Chad, impact surveys show that 28 health districts have reached elimination thresholds for trachoma as a public health problem. 1,563,680 people, or 95% of the target population, received medical treatment to fight onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis. Additionally, 1,551,244 school children were treated for schistosomiasis (85% of the target population), and 377,332 school children received drugs against soil-transmitted helminth infections (88% of the target population).
In the Central African Republic, OPC treated 1,244,450 people for trachoma.
In Congo, 991,698 people received medical treatment to stop the transmission of onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis (85% of the targeted population).
In the words of A.H., a grandmother in the Guéra region of Chad whom OPC helped to access a trachoma complication surgery:
“Beside the unbearable pain, my sight was declining, and I was afraid of going blind…a medical team came to my village, I didn’t [have to] go to town; I had an operation in my village. Thank you all. Everything is fine now, the pain is gone, and I can take care of my grandchildren!”
Help OPC make an even bigger impact in 2020! Support OPC’s fight against NTDs by making a gift today!