Colombia is First Country in the World to Eliminate Parasitic Disease River Blindness

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Colombia has been verified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having eliminated the parasitic disease onchocerciasis (known as “river blindness”), thus becoming the first country in the world to achieve this goal.

In an official notification letter, WHO director-general Margaret Chan congratulated the government of Colombia and urged it to “maintain vigilance to detect any future outbreaks” of the disease, which continues to circulate in other countries of Latin America.

 Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas, said Colombia’s achievement is “an example of commitment, persistence, and integrated work” and noted that the Americas Region has shown leadership in fighting this and other neglected infectious diseases. She also called for “redoubling efforts to eliminate the disease” in five other countries of this hemisphere, namely, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela, which are working toward achieving this same objective.

The official announcement came during a meeting in Bogotá led by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and minister of health and social protection Alejandro Gaviria, with participants including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, director of the Carter Center, which spearheaded the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas (OEPA), supporting actions to eliminate the disease. PAHO’s assistant director, José Romero Teruel, and the PAHO/WHO representative in Colombia, Gina Watson, also participated in the meeting.

Colombia achieved elimination of onchocerciasis following 16 years of concerted efforts led by Colombia’s National Institute of Health with support from the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, the Secretariat of Health of the Department of Cauca, academic and research institutions, OEPA, and PAHO/WHO.

The last “focus” (area of active transmission) of the disease in Colombia was Naicioná, a community of 1,366 inhabitants in the municipality of Lópex de Micay, in the Department of Cauca. The elimination strategy was based on mass administration of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin (donated by Merck) twice yearly during 12 consecutive years. In 2007, interruption of transmission of onchocerciasis infection was achieved, and community treatment with ivermectin was stopped.

Other activities included social mobilization, community participation, education, strengthening of epidemiological surveillance, improved living conditions, and basic sanitation.

An international expert mission visited Colombia in 2012 and verified the elimination of onchocerciasis transmission. The mission also recommended that surveillance activities be maintained to detect any possible reappearance of the parasitic infection and that the country continue to address social determinants associated with this and other neglected diseases.

Onchocerciasis is the second-leading infectious cause of blindness globally and also produces skin rashes and lesions. It is caused by the parasite Onchocerca volvulus and is transmitted to humans through the bite of the Simulium species of black flies, which are common in river areas.

PAHO, founded in 1902, is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO and is part of the Inter-American system.

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