Abu Dhabi institute to help eradicate river blindness from the Americas

Joint effort with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also aims to eliminate elephantiasis in Hispaniola

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Indigenous people living in remote rainforests will be targeted in a new drive to eliminate river blindness from the Americas.

The campaign has been funded thanks to a partnership between the Carter Centre and Abu Dhabi’s Global Institute for Disease Elimination (Glide), an initiative organised by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The charities aim to eliminate two neglected diseases: river blindness in the Americas and elephantiasis in Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

River blindness is caused by the bite of a black fly that has been infected by a parasitic worm. The symptoms include intense itching, a rash, and visual impairment, which can potentially lead to permanent blindness.

The challenge is in finding and reaching the people who need the medication

The spread of the disease can be stopped if entire communities take a worm-killing medicine called Ivermectin, which is donated to the Carter Centre by the manufacturers.

So far the disease has been wiped out in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala, but transmission persists in the deepest Amazon rainforest along the Brazil-Venezuela border.

It particularly affects the Yanomami, a nomadic indigenous tribe living in remote areas of the jungle, far from civilisation and medical facilities.

“The challenge is in finding and reaching the people who need the medication,” explained Gregory Noland, director of the River Blindness Elimination Programme at the Carter Centre.

“To eliminate river blindness from the Americas, we must reach everyone, even those living in the deepest parts of the rainforest,” he added.

The alliance with Glide will provide funding for doctors to use state-of-the-art technology to locate and treat indigenous people previously unreachable in remote rainforest villages.

Fight to eliminate elephantiasis and malaria

The partnership will also finance a final push to eliminate elephantiasis and malaria patients in Hispaniola.

The island’s population accounts for 95 per cent of elephantiasis cases in the Americas and is also the last remaining malaria-endemic location in the Caribbean.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. Courtesy: Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

The Carter Centre has been working to eliminate both diseases there since 2008, distributing drugs and providing care, including mental health support for those who suffer complications from elephantiasis.

The mosquito-transmitted disease damages the lymphatic system and can cause limbs and genitals to swell to disabling proportions.

It can be prevented with a combination of two drugs, which are administered annually to at-risk communities.

Malaria is more commonly known. A preventable disease spread by mosquitoes, it kills approximately 400,000 people globally each year, mostly children.

Symptoms include fever, intense headaches, vomiting, body-shaking chills, and other flu-like symptoms. Without treatment, malaria can lead to anaemia, hypoglycemia, cerebral malaria, coma and death.

Simon Bland, chief executive of Glide, said he hoped lessons learned from these projects in the Amazon and Hispaniola could help doctors working in Africa.

“The learnings may well provide clues for how we speed up elimination efforts in other remote global communities and takes us one step closer to consigning diseases of poverty to the history books,” he said.

The Abu Dhabi-based institute was founded in 2019 thanks to a collaboration between Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Its leaders are focused on accelerating the elimination of four preventable diseases of poverty: malaria, polio, lymphatic filariasis and river blindness. Efforts are under way to wipe out lymphatic filariasis immediately and river blindness by 2030.

The Carter Centre is a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organisation founded in 1982 by former US President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. It has a mandate to resolve conflicts, advance democracy, prevent diseases and improve mental health care.