Dubai: The West African country of Niger announced at Expo 2020 Dubai today that it has completed the necessary evaluations in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines to certify the elimination of river blindness.
Niger — preparing the requisite paperwork for WHO verification and pending certification — is now poised to become the first in Africa to declare it has eliminated the neglected tropical disease, a feat that was once considered impossible. After over 40 years of work to control or eliminate river blindness in West Africa, the achievement in Niger provides proof that elimination is possible, not just in West Africa but across the entire continent.
An event held today in the Niger Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai celebrated this progress. It was hosted by Reaching the Last Mile (RLM), a portfolio of global health programmes driven by the commitment of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The END Fund.
The hosts share a history of working together to combat neglected tropical diseases through the RLM Fund. Administered by the END Fund, RLMF is a ten-year, global partnership launched by Sheikh Mohamed together with support from philanthropists, governments and organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Attendees at the ceremony included Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General for Expo 2020 Dubai Bureau; Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Agada Garba, Ambassador of the Republic of Niger to the UAE.
“Niger’s leadership in the fight against a disease that once seemed impossible to defeat has been exemplary. I have deep gratitude to all who contributed to this achievement, including Nigeriens whose efforts made it an attainable dream. In particular, I want to thank Sheikh Mohamed for his vision in initiating the RLM Fund, which has brought new technologies and approaches to the neglected tropical diseases sector, and supported Niger in reaching the finish line,” Gates said.
River blindness in Niger
More than half a century ago, vast areas of fertile land were abandoned in West Africa because of a tiny black fly carrying a parasite that causes severe discomfort and eventually leads to river blindness or onchocerciasis. The disease is the world’s second leading infectious cause of blindness.
In 1974, the West African Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP) was launched to stamp out the disease in the region. Early efforts were focused on controlling the black fly spreading the disease-causing parasite and began with ground and helicopter spraying.
The progress made through vector control was complemented with mass drug administration campaigns that began in 1987, following donations of ‘Ivermectin’ from Merck, which offered countries a pathway to scale up treatment for river blindness like never before.
For the elimination of river blindness in Niger to be officially certified by WHO, the next step will be for Niger to submit an elimination dossier. If accepted, a formal declaration of the elimination of transmission will be made by WHO. The END Fund is currently supporting the Niger national programme in its efforts to compile a comprehensive dossier.
“Niger’s achievement is truly inspirational. The country has shown incredible leadership and perseverance through a long and uncharted journey towards river blindness elimination. It has been the END Fund’s privilege to support Niger in arriving at a destination many thought couldn’t be reached,” said Ellen Agler, chief executive officer of the END Fund.
“The significance of this moment cannot be underestimated. These efforts have created billions in economic gains for Niger, and the energy and momentum this will generate across the global NTD sector is immeasurable. On behalf of the entire ecosystem of partners the END Fund represents, we honour Niger’s leadership, and we are excited to support the next wave of countries across Africa following in Niger’s footsteps,” she added.
Neglected tropical diseases or NTDs affect more than 1.7 billion people — often those living in under-resourced areas, in remote communities, and without basic services like access to clean water and sanitation.
Significant progress has been made since the landmark 2012 London Declaration on NTDs, which unified partners across sectors, countries and disease communities to push for greater investment and action on NTDs. Today, hundreds of millions of people no longer require treatment for NTDs, and with the elimination of river blindness in Niger, 35 countries will have eliminated at least one NTD since 2012.