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Home The Lions Blog Rising to the Challenge: The Fight against River Blindness

Rising to the Challenge: The Fight against River Blindness

Bill Hatzos May 14, 2019

In a world in which 40 percent of the population is affected by water scarcity, it’s hard to fathom people abandoning their homes and fertile land near generously flowing rivers and streams. Yet, sometimes they must. And for good reason.


Commonly known as river blindness, onchocerciasis is an agonizing disease caused by bites from infected blackflies that make their home near rapidly coursing waters. Intense itching, rashes, skin discoloration and eye disease that can lead to permanent blindness are the more overt manifestations of the disease. But the devastation goes far beyond the individual.

Many people abandon their river valley homes, land and livelihood simply to avoid disease, damaging economic productivity for many villages in some of the world’s poorest areas.

A desperate vision crisis
The World Health Organization provides these sobering estimates:

  • At least 25 million people are infected with river blindness, while 123 million people live in areas that put them at risk of infection.
  • About 300,000 people are blind, and another 800,000 have visual impairment, because of the parasite transmitted through the blackfly bite.
  • Nearly 99 percent of those infected live in Africa.

LCIF has given out 253 million Mectizan® treatments with our grants (of which 218 million are through our partnership with TCC).

SightFirst’s Work
Men, women and children are suffering with the pain and the burning, itchy sensation that river blindness causes; everyone is susceptible to the disease. Parents are losing their vision and their ability to provide for their children. Children are distracted in school. At the forefront of preventable blindness, Lions knew they needed to step in and do what they could. Where there is a need, there is a Lion.

Since 1994, Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) has awarded US$44.8 million to support the distribution of approximately 253 million treatments of Mectizan®, a river blindness medicine in 15 African and Latin American countries. SightFirst facilitated the training of more than one million community volunteers to distribute the medication. Working with the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control and the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program of the Americas initiatives, LCIF’s partnerships are critical to these efforts to ensure that river blindness is no longer a public health problem.

LCIF began approving funds for onchocerciasis control in 1996 for Cameroon, which US$2,063,400 was approved for a grant that was split between The Carter Center, Sightsavers, Helen Keller International and International Eye Foundation. SightFirst has worked in close partnership since 1999 with The Carter Center (TCC)—a leader in the fight to end river blindness.

The effective collaboration of NGOs, ministries of health, governments, private sector companies, UN agencies and others is showing success. Colombia and Ecuador were two of the first nations in the world to have halted river blindness entirely through prevention, treatment and health education. In Africa, recent studies have shown the first evidence of feasibility of elimination in some areas. These steps toward halting onchocerciasis are not only preventing blindness, but also enabling people to return to their land and revive their local economies.

One step closer to ending river blindness
Transmission of onchocerciasis has been interrupted in the Nigerian states of Plateau and Nasarawa, ushering in a brighter future in the world’s most river blindness-endemic country. In addition, with LCIF support, the World Health Organization verified Colombia to be free of onchocerciasis in 2013, followed by Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively.

To date, LCIF has provided nearly US$45 million in grants to combat onchocerciasis worldwide, including US$28 million through a partnership with TCC.

TCC, founded by former U.S. President (and Lion) Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, centers on waging peace, fighting disease and building hope. LCIF has given out 293 million Mectizan® treatments with our grants (of which 218 million are through our partnership with TCC).

Supporting lions, serving humanity and giving hope
Pain, disfigurement and vision loss caused by river blindness are preventable. Thanks to LCIF’s partnership with TCC, and generous donations by leading drug companies such as Merck, global elimination of river blindness may just be in sight.

Nearly 75 percent of vision impairments are preventable or curable, often for mere dollars. LCIF will continue our foundation’s more than a quarter-century commitment to eliminating avoidable blindness worldwide including:

  • Helping 30 million people improve or restore their vision.
  • Investing US$415 million to extend services to even more people throughout the world.

Learn more about the mission of LCIF through Campaign 100: LCIF Empowering Service, which makes stories like this possible through our grants.

Click on the button below to learn more about the charge to rid the world of infectious blindness, reduce avoidable blindness and visual impairment, and improve overall quality of life to those with visual impairment.

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Bill Hatzos is the senior marketing specialist for Lions Clubs International Foundation.