Infectious diseases lurk too close for comfort

By Shanna O’Mara and Thomas Regan

Community distributors administer Mectizan to individuals in 392 African villages in June 2007.
Community distributors administer Mectizan to individuals in 392 African villages in June 2007.

A news banner flashes on the bottom of a television screen with the name of an infectious disease. Increasingly, these catalysts for worldwide suffering and death may be coming closer to home for Rider students.

“Worldwide, there is an increase in many infectious diseases,” according to the World Health Organization. “This reflects the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways of living. Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence.”

One of these diseases, onchocerciasis, was brought to students’ attention Feb. 22 by United Front Against Riverblindness (UFAR) Executive Director Dr. Daniel Shungu. Also known as riverblindness, onchocerciasis is a parasitic disease transmitted by black flies. Shungu’s presentation was during the “Global Perspectives on Health and Illness” course taught by Dr. Roberta Fiske-Rusciano, one of the founding board members of UFAR.

With the bite of a female black fly, larvae are left behind to grow beneath the skin, creating skin nodules. These parasites can travel into the bloodstream, eventually making their way to the optic nerve, where serious damage can occur.

Similar situations cause other diseases such as the Zika virus, which is primarily transmitted through mosquitos.

“Be aware of the situation of the Zika virus that is now in some parts of the Caribbean and in Central and South America,” said Donna Leusner, ’80, the New Jersey Department of Health’s director of communications. The Rider journalism graduate is reaching out to campuses across the state with health advisories prior to Spring Break. “It’s very important for students who are traveling to those countries to know that the best way to prevent Zika is to prevent mosquito bites when traveling to these areas.”

The Zika virus and Ebola have made headlines for taking the world by storm. Riverblindness is also gaining an infamous reputation.

The countries that have been hit by the Zika virus include Barbados; Bolivia; Brazil; Colombia; Puerto Rico; Costa Rica; Curacao; Dominican Republic; Ecuador; El Salvador; French Guiana; Guadeloupe; Guatemala; Guyana; Haiti; Honduras; Jamaica; Martinique; Mexico; Nicaragua; Panama; Paraguay; Saint Martin; Suriname; U.S. Virgin Islands; Venezuela; and Cape Verde.

Onchocerciasis is found in Yemen and six countries in South America, though 99 percent of cases are confined to Africa, where 30 countries are affected.

UFAR, an African-inspired, U.S.-based nonprofit organization that provides technical and financial support for the eradication of riverblindness, was founded in 2004 by Shungu after he traveled to the Congo, his native country, and was informed of the threat posed by the disease.

“I’ve lived in the United States for 40 years, but my heart is still in Congo,” Shungu said. During a 12-day field trip in the Congo, he asked a village leader how he could help the country.

“Without hesitation, he said riverblindness,” Shungu said.

Because medications are not readily available in remote parts of Africa, Merck has been manufacturing a drug called Ivermectin, also known as Mectizan, and providing it free worldwide since 1987 for the treatment of onchocerciasis. The drug has already been administered to nearly 4 million people in the Congo, according to Fiske-Rusciano.

Last year, Dr. William C. Campbell, a scientist at Merck, won a share of the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for his role in treating riverblindness.

Described by Shungu as “a miracle drug,” Mectizan is injected once a year for 10 years in every resident of the infected villages.

“There should be one community distributor for 100 villages,” Shungu said. These distributors travel by land cruisers, motorcycles, bicycles or even canoes, all funded by UFAR, to issue the medicine which kills the larvae.

Shungu has participated in these trips with help from his local church, volunteer groups and other major partners such as the World Health Organization, the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control and the World Bank.

“I’m not the type to just send money,” he said. “I want to be there.”

While Mectizan is being accepted in Africa and is helping to fight the epidemic, Zika is raging across borders without any treatment medications.

As of now, there is no vaccination that can be administered to prevent Zika.

“It’s important to note that there is no vaccine or preventative drug at this time,” Leusner said.

Both the Zika virus and riverblindness are mostly contained in countries outside of the United States.

In 2005, an area equivalent to four times the size of New Jersey was infected by riverblindness, according to Shungu. Today, the disease is considered eliminated in 11 West African countries, meaning at least 75 percent of people in these areas are cured. Shungu hopes that by 2020, the disease will be totally eradicated.

Members of the organization hope to have the same success when handling similar diseases in the future.

“UFAR has recently taken on an expanded role in the fight against neglected tropical diseases, and soon the community distributors in the villages will be administering medicine to combat lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, and helminthes, as well,” Fiske-Rusciano said.

With help from UFAR, partnering organizations and work by the global village, Africa is becoming an increasingly healthier place to live. According to UFAR, “It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a global village to save a child.”

For those interested in donating to the United Front Against River Blindness, please go to UFAR’s web page for more information. 

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