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International Donors Commit US$31million for River Blindness Efforts

At the 16th meeting of the Joint Action Forum (JAF) in Abuja, Nigeria, international donors committed US$31 million to the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC) to support efforts to control and eliminate the tropical disease onchocerciasis, commonly called river blindness. Health officials also confirmed that river blindness is moving towards elimination using existing treatment methods developed by APOC and partners.

“We have reached the stage that Africa can get rid of river blindness, and the APOC partnership, with the support pledged today by governments, can make this happen,” said Uche Amazigo, Director, WHO APOC, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Financing for APOC comes through a trust fund managed by the World Bank, supported by donors that include national governments, foundations and the private sector. Since 1995 donors have contributed US$185.6 million; today’s pledges add US$31 million to that total for the next two years. Among the new commitments was a first-ever contribution of US$1 million from a Nigerian philanthropist who is also a survivor of river blindness.

“The success of APOC in controlling river blindness is due to the partnership approach to organization, in which countries, civil society, the private sector, country donors and UN agencies all play key roles,” said Donald Bundy, APOC Coordinator, the World Bank. “APOC’s unique community approach to implementation places the program in the hands of its beneficiaries.”

River blindness is a tropical parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of black flies. Infection can cause intense itching, skin disfiguration, vision loss and blindness. More than 120 million people worldwide are at risk of river blindness. In Africa, 70 million people receive annual treatment with the drug ivermectin (MECTIZAN) donated by the U.S.-based pharmaceutical company Merck through the MECTIZAN Donation Program.

Researchers at the JAF presented data that built on a July 2009 announcement by the World Health Organization demonstrating the first evidence that elimination of river blindness is possible in some of the areas affected by river blindness. Areas of Senegal and Mali that have had infection brought to near zero by regular treatment, have then remained free of infection more than 3 years after treatment was stopped. Although more work needs to be done, the research signals an important step towards the ultimate goal of eliminating the disease.

Today’s news represents encouraging progress, but additional work is needed to expand the program’s reach, conduct needed research, and secure additional financial support.

In December, 2011 donors and program partners will gather in Kuwait City, Kuwait for the 17th meeting of the JAF to review the program’s operational progress and financial status.

Background on APOC
APOC, established in 1995, brings together 19 African countries affected by river blindness in an effort to control and where possible, eliminate, this neglected tropical disease (NTD). APOC is led by the World Health Organization through technical and managerial support from program headquarters in Burkina Faso. As the longest running public-private partnership for health in Africa, APOC is unique in the involvement of a broad range of financial, scientific and operational partners.

With strong leadership from African ministries of health and support from 146,000 local communities and some 15 international non-governmental organizations, APOC provided nearly 70 million people with treatment for river blindness in 2009. The Programme’s community-directed treatment strategy also strengthens health systems and provides an avenue for management of other diseases, especially for isolated populations and particularly for treatment of other Neglected Tropical Diseases, such as worm infections and trachoma, as well as bednets for malaria and micronutrient supplements.