“as much as needed, for as long as needed..."
For centuries, river blindness (onchocerciasis) plagued remote communities in Africa, Latin America and Yemen, and there was no answer to this affliction.
This all began to change in the mid-to-late 1970s, when Dr. William Campbell of Merck Research Laboratories suggested the use of ivermectin (later named Mectizan) for river blindness in humans. Following the breakthrough lab work by Dr. Campbell, another Merck researcher, Dr. Mohammed Aziz, championed the clinical development of Mectizan. Dr. Aziz led the collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) in the early 1980s to design and implement field studies in West Africa that, ultimately, proved the effectiveness of the drug against river blindness.
In 1987, Merck committed to donate Mectizan - as much as needed for as long as needed - with the goal to help eliminate river blindness.
In order to reach this goal, Merck leaders recognized that many organizations with unique skills would need to work together as a team. To enable this collaboration, Merck established the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP), a ground-breaking public-private partnership. Operating from the Atlanta-based Task Force for Global Health, the MDP coordinates technical and operational activities between Merck, WHO, the World Bank, and a range of public and private stakeholders.
Building on the successful implementation of the river blindness program, in 1998 Merck expanded its commitment to include donating Mectizan for another disease, lymphatic filariasis (LF), also known as elephantiasis, in African countries and Yemen where it co-exists with river blindness. For LF, Mectizan is administered with albendazole, a drug donated by GSK.
In November 2017, in support of new WHO guidelines, Merck announced an expansion of the MECTIZAN® Donation Program (MDP) to reach up to an additional 100 million people per year through 2025 as part of the global effort to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (LF).
More than thirty years later, the results of the MDP speak for themselves. Several countries in Africa are making significant progress towards eliminating both diseases. In Latin America, four countries – Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala – have received WHO verification of river blindness elimination. Both river blindness and lymphatic filariasis are on WHO’s list of neglected tropical diseases targeted for elimination globally.
Today, the MDP is the longest-running, disease-specific drug donation program of its kind and has been influential in the development of a number of other drug donation programs. And, the MDP's community-directed strategy used to distribute Mectizan has enabled add-on health services to be introduced in remote communities where health services are limited. The program reaches more than 250 million people in the affected areas annually, with more than 2 billion treatments donated since 1987.
“Who would have thought when that donation was first announced in 1987 that we would be talking of eliminating a disease due to donated Mectizan," said Adrian Hopkins, head of the MDP and Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his humanitarian service. "Mectizan is able to impact the life and economy of these communities."
According to Uche Amazigo, former director of the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control,
"by engaging the people, the treatment coverage increased significantly."
People in the communities are an integral part of the distribution process in the more than 146,000 communities where Mectizan has been distributed.
Over 30 years later, the results of this program speak for themselves.
Through the efforts of a variety of partners, more than 2.9 billion treatments have been donated to more than 146,000 communities in 29 countries in Africa, six countries in Latin America, and in Yemen. River blindness transmission has been interrupted - meaning no new cases have been identified - in four of the six affected countries in Latin America and regions in five African countries. The program reaches approximately 300 million people annually.
Today, the MDP is the longest-running, disease-specific drug donation program of its kind.
We are humbled by the great work of the alliance of partners to protect future generations from a disease that carries devastating implications for people, families, healthcare systems and local economies.- Ken Frazier