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The following is a conversation between Dr. Frank Richards, the Director of the River Blindness Elimination Program at The Carter Center, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: And our semi-finalist for this evening in the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change Initiative is The Carter Center, and their proposal is to eliminate river blindness in Nigeria. And here to discuss that with us is Dr. Frank Richards, who is the Director of the River Blindness Elimination Program at The Carter Center. Good evening, Dr. Richards, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Frank: Good evening! It’s a pleasure to be here.
River blindness is an infectious disease, and it’s caused by a parasite. Actually, it’s caused by a parasitic worm…it’s also a very terrible skin disease, as well as a terrible eye disease.
Denver: Quite a few people have probably heard of river blindness, but not too many people fully appreciate or understand what it actually is. So tell us – what is river blindness?
Frank: River blindness is an infectious disease, and it’s caused by a parasite. Actually, it’s caused by a parasitic worm. You can imagine a very thin worm that measures about 13 inches long, coiled up into a clump, living underneath your skin. That is this parasite that we call onchocerca volvulus that causes river blindness. The interesting thing about this parasite is that it is transmitted from person to person by the bite of a small black fly. The black flies breed in rapidly flowing waters, rapidly flowing rivers and streams. So when you’re close to those streams, you’d find lots of these black flies, and so you find lots of these worms.
…people catch river blindness, but people also cause river blindness. So that if we can use the tools that we have, this miracle medicine Mectizan to eliminate the parasite in the human population, it’s gone once and for all, unless it’s reintroduced from outside.
Frank: I think it’s really important to recognize that these black flies are not born infected with this parasite. The parasite doesn’t live in the rivers; it doesn’t live in other animals or in the environment. This is a parasite that lives in human beings only, and the black flies serve to pick up the parasite and transfer it to another person. So the black flies are not infected; new infections cannot happen, but the black flies must be infected by another person. So I like to say people catch river blindness, but people also cause river blindness. So that if we can use the tools that we have, this miracle medicine Mectizan to eliminate the parasite in the human population, it’s gone once and for all, unless it’s reintroduced from outside.
The way that the worms cause blindness is that the curled up clump of worms living under the skin that I mentioned produce baby worms, which we call microfilariae, that get underneath the skin and also get into the eyes. These tiny little worms, about the size of a period on a printed page of paper, get into the eyes and cause inflammation and visual loss and in many people, ultimately blindness. It also gets under the skin and causes terrible, terrible itching and skin discoloration and depigmentation of the skin, and so it’s also a very terrible skin disease, as well as a terrible eye disease.
Denver: Boy, it certainly sounds horrific. How long is it before somebody would go blind?