About 18 million people have river blindness worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, but more than 99% of cases of this disease are found in Africa. It goes by the technical name “onchocerciasis,” and it spreads through small black flies that breed in fast-flowing, highly oxygenated waters. When an infected fly bites a person, it drops worm larvae in the skin, which can then grow and reproduce in the body.
Unlike malaria, river blindness is not fatal, but it causes a “miserable life,” said Moses Katabarwa, senior epidemiologist for the Atlanta-based Carter Center’s River Blindness Program, which has been leading an effort to eliminate the disease in the Americas and several African countries.
There is no vaccine for river blindness, but there is a drug, calledivermectin that paralyzes and kills the offspring of adult worms, according to the Mayo Clinic. It may also slow the reproduction of adult female worms, so there are fewer of them in the skin, blood and eyes.
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