River Blindness is a parasitic disease caused by a large tissue roundworm that spreads from one person to another through blackflies bites. This disease is primarily of African origin, common in central Africa especially in villages near rivers and streams. Blackflies breed and proliferate in rivers where the water flows swiftly, where humidity is high and where there are lots of plants that grow around.
Origin and Distribution
This disease remains a major health problem in Africa and it has also spread to other parts of the world. Countries such as Yemen, Brazil, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico have their own versions of river blindness because it is believed that slaves brought from Africa to Central and South America have introduced the worm to those places.
Onchoceriasis is the medical term for river blindness and the scientific name of the parasite that causes this disease is Onchocerca volvulus. River blindness does not kill a person inflicted with it but it does damage within many years and causes discomfort, deformity and blindness to the person.
If a person has the parasitic worm, he or she may not have any symptoms at all. People who are living in places where many have the worm and where the blackflies breed will be continually re-exposed and develop a chronic and worsening illness. Most of the symptoms are generated by the body's immune system as a response to the worm's young, the microfilariae. Microfilariae move through the tissues under a person's skin and eventually die there. After three to fifteen months, symptoms will start to show.
- Itchy skin rash may appear and can be severe and debilitating. The skin of the person may also be painful swollen and hot.
- Inflammation of the lymph nodes
- Nodules under the surface of the skin
- The skin becomes wrinkled, darkened, de-pigmented or thickened over time which sometimes results to a leopard skin pattern.
- Hanging groin, which usually occurs in Africa, develops. This is a condition wherein sacs of tissue that contains infected lymph nodes hang from the groin. Also, elephantiasis (synonyms: elephantitis, lymphatic filariasis) of the scrotum happens.
- The microfilariae that invade the tissues at the back of the eye cause immune response which destroys the person's vision in a slow manner. This renders the victim blind by the time he or she reaches middle age.
Is There Cure for River Blindness?
Onchocerca volvulus is one of the few human parasites that infect only people and cause river blindness. This makes the parasite a good thing to eradicate completely if resources were made available especially in the areas where the culprit thrives and multiples. At present, there are drugs available to counter onchocerca but still, there is no perfect cure yet. Some drugs are a little toxic and bring serious side effects to the person. Also, these drugs do not have the capacity to reverse skin damage, blindness or hanging groin. River blindness affects mostly poor rural areas, making it hard to allocate funds and deliver treatments effectively.