A GIRL in a remote state in Nigeria has received the one billionth dose of a treatment that will protect her from a disease that has destroyed the eyesight of millions in the developing world.
The treatment for river blindness, which is classed as a neglected tropical disease (NTD), since it frequently fails to win international attention or funding, was administered by the charity Sightsavers, and funded by UK aid.
The girl, Dorcas, who is seven, was taken to receive the treatment by her grandfather, Simon, who is himself blind from the disease.
River blindness is transmitted to humans by the bites of black flies, which live near fast-flowing rivers. Infection causes a skin disease initially, which can lead to visual impairment and irreversible blindness.
Many communities, such as Kudaru in Kaduna State, Nigeria, where Simon and Dorcas live, rely heavily on the water from these rivers for drinking, washing, and agriculture, which increases the spread of the disease. The whole community moved further inland 20 years ago to try to escape the black fly after 50 per cent of its people were infected with the disease.
A spokesman for Sightsavers said that Dorcas’s community had not experienced any new infections in recent years, thanks to the rolling out of the treatment programme.
Dorcas said: “My grandfather cannot see; so I have to help him walk and make food. Sometimes he tells me about how life was before, when he was young and could see. I love my grandfather very much and don’t want other people to suffer like him.”
Her grandfather added: “I have many hopes for my granddaughter, Dorcas, but the main one is that she is able to grow up without ending up blind like me.
“I thank God for my life every day, and am grateful that I’m still alive despite the fact that I am blind. But my wish is that river blindness will not befall any other person, because to be blind when it could have been avoided is a terrible experience.”
Sightsavers says that one in five people around the world is affected by an NTD. “They are known as ‘neglected’ because, for the most part, these diseases are not prioritised by governments, don’t draw major pharmaceutical funding, and don’t spur global awareness movements like Zika and Ebola; but many of these diseases are preventable and treatable, yet more than a billion people still suffer from them,” the spokesman said.
There are 120 million people globally still at risk of river blindness — clinically known as onchocerciasis — and the condition is classed as endemic in 27 countries worldwide.
Sightsavers is also running a campaign, Million Miracles, in partnership with the Church Times, to treat a million people with cataracts in the developing world. Each operation to restore a person’s sight by treating his or her cataracts costs only £30. The charity hopes to raise £30 million by the end of the year. The UK Government has pledged to match donations made up to 9 January. So far, the campaign has funded 847,691 operations.