COTE D'IVOIRE: River blindness is back

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The parasitic disease river blindness, once thought to have been eradicated from Côte d’Ivoire, has re-emerged in some regions following years of armed conflict that wiped out mechanisms for surveillance and control, health officials say.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2002 closed its West Africa programme to eliminate river blindness, or onchocerciasis, as a public health threat. That was also the year an armed rebellion divided the country.

Studies carried out from July to September 2007 following incidental reports of cases  in forest areas in south-western Côte d’Ivoire found that 14.29 percent of under-five children there suffer from onchocerciasis.

“These results show that the situation has become alarming in these zones, where the disease had been eradicated,” Health Minister Remi Allah Kouadio told reporters on 19 December, following an onchocerciasis conference in Brussels.

The disease is caused by a worm transmitted through the bites of infected blackflies, according to WHO. The flies carry larvae from human to human; they mature into adult worms under human skin. After mating, a female fly releases up to 1,000 tiny worms per day, known as microfilariae. These cause a variety of conditions including blindness, rashes and lesions.

When WHO ended its West Africa river blindness programme in 2002, governments were to carry on surveillance and detection using infrastructure developed with WHO’s support.

But in Côte d'Ivoire the health ministry’s surveillance activities stopped in many areas due to the destruction of infrastructure in fighting just after the rebellion, Health Minister Kouadio said.

The government plans to reactivate its programme to fight river blindness, starting with additional studies to determine precisely which areas are affected. No date is set yet for the launch, according to health ministry spokesperson Siméon N’Da.

WHO officials could not be reached for comment.

Source: IRIN