Overcoming the Odds: Venezuela’s Onchocerciasis Elimination Program

Source: Oscar Noya Alarcón/Carter Center

Despite Venezuela’s ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis, the country’s onchocerciasis (river blindness) elimination program continues working effectively in the Amazon rainforest.

Led by the Simón Bolívar Amazon Center for Research and Control of Tropical Diseases (SACAICET), teams of health workers and indigenous agents deliver the antiparasitic drug ivermectin to Yanomami, Yekwana, and Hoti communities in Southern Venezuela every few months. Since 2000, these efforts have stopped disease transmission in most endemic areas.

Onchocerciasis threatens 240 million globally, mainly in Africa, and 38,000 in the Americas. (The original population at risk in the Americas was around 538,517 people.) The parasite causes skin lesions and vision loss. Though rarely fatal, it can weaken immunity. Ivermectin can eliminate the worm over time, enabling regional 2020 targets. Indeed, onchocerciasis no longer exists in parts of Latin America, including Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and north-central and northeastern Venezuela..

Source: Oscar Noya Alarcón/Carter Center

Still, around 230,000 sq km of Yanomami territory in Venezuela’s rainforests remains affected. Despite the challenges of remoteness and semi-nomadic inhabitants, SACAICET teams access most communities by river, land, and air. Their success relies on coordinated regional and local commitment between health authorities, NGOs like the Carter Center, and crucially, Merck’s long-term ivermectin donation program.

Though the remaining population at risk is small, deploying the program in Yanomami areas entails enormous difficulties. Teams must map communities, search for inhabitants when they migrate, build landing strips, and discover new settlements. But their unrelenting efforts show hope for ending onchocerciasis in the Americas. If regional coordination continues alongside Venezuela’s local determination, the country’s progress against river blindness can likely overcome the odds.

Read the full article by María Eugenia Grillet in the Caracas Chronicles, and a review of the Carter Center Onchocerciasis Elimination Program here.

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