Friday, February 20, 2009

Uganda seeing increase in river blindness


After being ravaged by a war that has lasted more than 20 years, the people of Northern Uganda are being destroyed by another disaster. River blindness.

Reports show that children in some northern Uganda districts are going blind. Before, it was the war that was snuffing out the hope for a bright future and just when it was ending and the children sniffed some good tidings, onchocerciasis took over to stifle any glimmer of hope.

Onchocerciasis (river blindness) is caused by a parasite, onchocerca, and spread by the black fly which breeds near fast flowing water bodies and in forests. The black fly
bites an infected person and ingests the worms that cause onchocerciasis. These worms breed for a period of two weeks before turning into an infectious state, larval stage. The black fly, when it bites another individual, will deposit the infectious larvae of the worm into them.

Michael Lalobo, a Senior Lecturer of Paristology - Vector Borne Diseases Control at the School of Public Health, Mulago, says that it is this larvae that causes symptoms of onchocerciasis like skin rash, eye lesions and bumps. He adds that the black fly, which bites and cuts viciously, has to bite one several times and deposit a large number of worms into their body before symptoms start to develop. He says this is why it is usually adults that show symptoms of river blindness.

However, in Kitgum and Pader districts, it is the children going blind and this implies that they have been bitten several times by the black fly.

It should be noted that the larvae develops to adulthood in the human body and this can live for about 18 years. These adult worms form big bumps on the skin and Mr. Lalobo says that these can be cut and the worms removed by trained personnel. He adds that a layman, when trained, can perform this task too.

Besides the adult worms causing skin rash, the larvae they deposit in the body are very infectious. They cause itching of the skin and the infected individual normally has to scratch their skin to a point where it turns ashy. It is the same larvae that causes the keratin in the eye to harden such that the infected person turns blind.

To cure river blindness, there should be mass administration of the oral drug, Ivermectin, so that all infected persons get treated to reduce the chances of an infected person spreading the disease. There is no known vaccination for river blindness.

To avoid catching the disease, individuals can wear long sleeved clothes, especially when going out to places near a river, stream, or to forests.

Black flies do not travel to homesteads and there is little chance that an individual will get bitten in their own home.