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 Colombia, the first country in the world to eliminate River Blindness

Ministerio de Salud y Protección Social > English > Colombia, the first country in the world to eliminate River Blindness
Press release  

- Onchocerciasis, known as river blindness, is the second leading cause of infectious blindness in the world.
Bogotá, D.C., July 29, 2013. The National Government, through the Ministry of Health and Social Protection and the National Institute of Health, was awarded by the World Health Organization (WHO)/Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) the verification document which recognizes Colombia as the first country in the world to eliminate onchocerciasis or river blindness.

This recognition is the result of over 14 years of the joint work of an interdisciplinary team consisting of the National Institute of Health and other public and private entities, with technical guidance and financial support from OEPA/Carter Center and the ongoing commitment of the Naicioná community of the municipality of Lopez de Micay in the province of Cauca.

The Onchocerciasis Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) is coordinated by the Carter Center and its main allies in this effort are the ministries of health of the six endemic countries of the Americas (Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia), the Pan American Health Organization, MSD, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (USA), the U.S. Agency for International Development of the United States, Lions Clubs International Foundation and other organizations and individual donors.

How did we eliminate it in Colombia?
The strategy for the elimination of onchocerciasis in America is to ensure treatment with Ivermectin (Mectizan, donated by MSD) every six months to the population residing in the communities where the disease exists, for a period of approximately 10 to 15 years, with coverage exceeding 85%. In Colombia, this treatment was provided on an ongoing basis since 1996 and it was suspended in 2007 on the recommendation of OEPA, when it was demonstrated that the transmission of the parasite had been stopped.

From that year, the focus of infection located in the country passed to a 3-year post-treatment surveillance phase, which was designed to verify that no new cases were reported. At the end of this period, in 2011, the CDC in Atlanta conducted an assessment of spreading flies, which allowed showing that the interruption of circulation of the parasite continued and therefore the disease had been eliminated due to, among other factors, the extensive collaboration of the population involved.
Based on these results, the then Ministry of Social Protection of Colombia requested WHO/PAHO verification of the elimination of the disease in the country. In response to this request, WHO scheduled a visit by a group of international experts who confirmed the success of the National onchocerciasis elimination program.

Situation in Colombia
The first case of onchocerciasis in Colombia was reported in 1965 by two scientists from the Universidad del Valle, which prompted a group of researchers from the Universidad Nacional and the National Institute of Health to become involved in the process and conduct an exhaustive nationwide search of the disease. This resulted in the delimitation of this focus, which was located in the village of Naicioná, an area with very difficult access, on the Chuare River basin in the province of Cauca.

The contribution of the research team was the estimation of the magnitude of the problem, definition of the prevalence, reservoirs, finding the midge or mosquito that transmits the disease and definition of its biting habits, densities in different seasons, different times of day and places in the community where exposition to the bite was most likely, among others.

In 1993 the National Onchocerciasis Committee in Colombia was formed, led by the National Institute of Health with support from the Ministry of Health, the Health Office of Cauca and other national and international entities.

In 1996, community treatment with Mectizan began in the Naicioná village, and it continued without interruption, every six months for 11 years, until 2007. In 2008 the post-treatment epidemiological surveillance phase began.

What is onchocerciasis?
Onchocerciasis (also known as river blindness or Robles disease) is caused by the Onchocerca volvulus worm and is transmitted by a Simulium fly, which causes skin and eye lesions that can lead to blindness.

According to estimates by the World Health Organization, onchocerciasis is the second leading cause of infectious blindness in the world, with 17.7 million people infected, 270,000 are blind, 500,000 have severe visual problems and over 100 million people live at risk of infection.

Caption: The President of the Republic, Juan Manuel Santos attended the delivery of certification for Colombia free from river blindness with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Minister of Health and Social Protection, Alejandro Gaviria, in the Red room of the Hotel Tequendama.

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