Yaoundé Says River Blindness Still a Major Health Issue
Hospitals in Cameroon are reporting an increase in cases of river blindness, a parasitic disease caused by bites from infected blackflies. Hundreds of aid workers have been dispatched to remote, riverside villages to encourage those infected to seek treatment.
In Sa’a district, 74 kilometers north of Cameroon’s capital of Yaounde, 45-year-old Jean Christophe Onana says he has not been able to recover his sight after receiving treatment from an African traditional healer for two months. He says he strongly believes that he has been bewitched by his enemies who are envious of last year’s abundant yield from his cocoa farm.
Aid workers say Onana suffers from river blindness, a parasitic disease particularly prevalent in Africa, where 99% of all cases occur.
Cameroon’s ministry of public health says that hospitals in Lekie, the administrative unit where Sa’a is located, have reported several hundred fresh cases of river blindness within the past three months.
The central African state’s government says the increase is in areas where there have been floods and where new farmland was opened near rivers, attracting settlers.
Ophthalmologist Raoul Edgard Cheuteu, one of the aid workers in Sa’a, says humanitarian agencies and the government of Cameroon have decided to jointly equip the Sa’a district hospital and scores of other hospitals in areas where there is an increase in river blindness cases with standard tests for the diagnosis of the disease. Cheuteu says Onchocerciasis is increasing in Sa’a because of its many rivers that are breeding sites for blackflies that transmit river blindness.
Aid workers are educating civilians in Cameroon riverside villages that river blindness is not a spell or divine punishment for wrongdoing but an infection that can be controlled and treated at hospitals.
Cameroon reports that youths are deserting remote villages where the number of people suffering from the parasitic disease of the skin and eyes transmitted by the black fly is increasing.
The Cameroon government says besides Sa’a, several hundred hospitals in Cameroon’s Centre, East and South regions have reported at least 6,000 new infections within three months.
The figures may be higher since 70% of Cameroonians go for African traditional medicine where it is difficult to collect data, the government says.
The Global Institute for Disease Elimination, GLIDE, works with the Cameroon ministry of Public Health to help accelerate treatment for river blindness, a neglected tropical disease.
GLIDE’s top official, Dr. Aissatou Diawara, says river blindness is a public health concern in Cameroon because about 6 million of the country’s 26 million inhabitants are already infected.
“Despite two decades of annual treatment or community-directed treatment with ivermectin or CDTI, confirmed cases of Onchocerciasis are still present in 113 health districts previously classified as hyperendemic,” Diawara said via a messaging app. “So the use of test and treat strategy and addressing communities to get used to treatment are essential steps towards eliminating Onchocerciasis in Cameroon.”
Diawara says blackflies that transmit river blindness breed along fast-flowing rivers and streams, close to remote villages located near fertile land where people rely on agriculture. She said river blindness is transmitted to humans through exposure to repeated bites of infected blackflies and symptoms include severe itching, disfiguring skin conditions and visual impairment, including permanent blindness.
The United Nations says Onchocerciasis occurs mainly in tropical areas, with more than 99% of infected people living in 31 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.