Stakeholders within the health sector have called for intensified efforts in the fight against river blindness especially by eliminating the factors that facilitate cross border transmission.
On Tuesday, government through the Ministry of Health together with the Carter Center convened a meeting of the Uganda Onchocerciasis Elimination Expert Advisory Committee (UOEEAC) to take stock of the progress made in reducing the prevalence of onchocerciasis (river blindness) and what needs to be done to eliminate it.
During the opening of the three-day forum at Sheraton Hotel, Minister for Health, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng said that while Uganda has registered success in stamping out Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) such as Guinea Worm, there is still work to be done.
Seventeen (17) foci (centres of disease activity) were formerly reported to be endemic with River Blindness, where 39 districts have been undergoing mass treatment. But currently, 6 foci covering 18 districts have eliminated the disease and have stopped mass treatment, protecting a population of 1.9 million people.
“Transmission however remains a challenge in areas bordering South Sudan and DR Congo.The remaining districts are expected to have eliminated Onchocersiasis by 2020. That means we have to intensifiy our efforts to ensure that we meet the 2020 elimination goal,” Minister Aceng said.
She said that Bilharzia and swine transmitted ailments have seen significant reduction in prevalence but that the challnege is high reinfection rates due to inadequate sanitation especially in fishing villages.
“Cross border treatment and treatment of refugees is pertinent to our NTD elimination in Uganda”.
“The cross border collaboration of DRC and South Sudan has got tremendous political support and action plans have been made to this effect. We as a Ministry shall strengthen this collaboration even more,” she added.
Cross border collaboration with neighbors, DRC and South Sudan, has not been limited to NTDs but other dissuades including Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers like Ebola. The Minister revealed that Uganda which hosts over 1.4 million refugees, many of them from the two high risk countries is soon to begin treating communities in refugee settlements.
On his part, the representative from the Carter Centre proposes specialized interventions particularly targeting areas bordering DRC and South Sudan.
“Transmission is very active concentrated in two foci, one at the border with on DRC and South Sudan. Both of these foci have cross border transmission so we propose these areas be considered as special intervention zones requiring special plans,” he said.
Tuesday’s discussion brought together health consultants, officials from Ministry of Health, epidemiologists, District Health Officers (DHOs), Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) and vector control officers among others. A sizable number of delegates from DRC and South Sudan also attended.
The World Health Organization representative in Uganda, Dr Yonas Woldemariam who also attended the forum noted that Uganda is ahead of other countries in the region in line with full elimination of Onchocersiasis. He however said that transmission from other countries remains a threat in these efforts.
Dr Woldemariam said; “The ongoing transmissions in the DRC and South Sudan are to be considered seriously. Cross border transmission had been a threat to the eradication of Polio and Guinea worm elimination, and now is a threat for Ebola transmission”.
He called for cross border surveillance synchronization of interventions are critical in handling cross border disease treatment.
River blindness, is a disease caused by infection with the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus. Symptoms include severe itching, bumps under the skin, and blindness. It is the second-most common cause of blindness due to infection, after trachoma.
The parasite worm is spread by the bites of a black fly of the Simulium type. These flies live near rivers, hence the common name of the disease.