Don’t turn a blind eye to Onchocerciasis

If the term Onchocerciasis does not ring a bell, you may get a vivid idea of what it is by its common term River Blindness. It is also known as Robles disease. It is caused by the parasite worm Onchocerca volvulus, transmitted by repeated bites of the Simulium type black fly which is generally found near rivers. The bite of this fly infects the target host with its larvae and thus spreads the disease. Although a single bite of the fly may not cause any permanent impairment, permanent blindness may be the effect of several bites of this black fly.

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Although almost twenty six million people are affected by the river blindness disease completely or partially, it is categorised under the “neglected tropical disease”. It is one of the most common causes of infectious blindness the world over, second only to trachoma. The origin of this disease may be traced back to Africa, from where it spread to the Americas because of the slave trade. This disease has affected the populace of Africa, Central and South America, and may be found in other isolated tropical regions. If you know the impending signs of river blindness, you may take proper measures to cure it in time.

Glaring signs of onchocerciasis

This disease specifically affects the eyes and skin.

  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Inflammation of skin resulting in severe itching
  • Formation of nodes or bumps under the skin

Effects of Onchocerciasis

  • Gradual loss of vision results in permanent blindness
  • Constant irritation of the optic nerve
  • The “glaucoma effect” may make you see shadows
  • Skin may resemble that of a leopard because of depigmentation
  • Skin may lose its softness and elasticity to resemble a lizard’s skin or tissue paper

Preventive measures

  • The best prevention is taking steps to avoid insect bites, since no vaccine is available yet.
  • Use insect repellents.
  • Wear full sleeved shirts and trousers.
  • Treat clothes to permethrin.

Available treatment

Before you blindly associate your symptoms with a medication, consult a doctor on the extent of harm the onchocerciasis bacteria has on you and then consider your best options. Initial biopsy of your skin or specific blood test seeking the parasitic antibodies may be helpful.

  • Two doses of “Ivermectin” are administered for three years, with a gap of six months between each dosage in “mass drug administration (MDA) programmes”.
  • You may use the antibiotic doxycycline to kill the bacteria Wolbachia living in the parasite. The dosage is more frequent, and has to be administered daily for about six weeks.

The trickiest part of onchocerciasis is the fact that you may be a host to the bacteria and still feel completely healthy at the same time. You may carry the parasitic larvae for almost twenty months before feeling any symptoms at all. It is only after the adult larvae reproduce in large quantities that health anomalies crop up. According to a statement released by WHO in 2002, not even a single death has been caused by onchocerciasis, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.