International Coalition Urges Final Push to Eliminate River Blindness from the Americas


September 29, 2015 9:30 am ET

Country efforts supported by a major public-private partnership – including The Carter Center/OEPA, PAHO/WHO, and Merck & Co., Inc.’s Mectizan Donation Program – bring the region closer to achieving the elimination goal by 2020

Mexico latest country to receive verification of elimination by World Health Organization

The Carter Center, PAHO/WHO and the Mectizan Donation Program of Merck &
Co., Inc. known as MSD outside the United States and Canada, are part of
a coalition of organizations helping countries in the Americas fight
river blindness (onchocerciasis), and are calling for a final push to
definitively eliminate transmission of the disabling disease from the
Western Hemisphere.

“Today, four of the six river blindness-endemic countries in the
Americas have eliminated transmission of the disease, but I am not ready
to celebrate until the task is complete,” said former U.S. President
Jimmy Carter, founder of The Carter Center, which has led the campaign
to wipe out river blindness in Latin America through its Onchocerciasis
Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA). “Now is not the time to be
complacent. It is the time to increase our efforts.”

Onchocerciasis is a parasitic disease carried by biting black flies that
breed in fast-flowing rivers and streams. It can cause intense itching
and skin damage, nodules, eye damage, and eventually blindness. The
disease disproportionately affects low-income communities in several
Latin American countries and in Africa, contributing to the cycle of
poverty by reducing affected individuals’ ability to work and learn. In
the late 1990s, an estimated 500,000 people in six endemic countries of
the Americas were at risk of onchocerciasis.

“River blindness can be controlled and even eliminated when countries
mobilize the necessary political will and receive strong support from
international partners,” said Dr. Carissa F. Etienne, director of the
Pan American Health Organization, Regional Office for the Americas of
the World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO). “Today we are calling for
renewed resolve in our joint efforts so we can finally rid our
hemisphere of this disabling disease forever.”

For more than two decades, elimination efforts undertaken by the endemic
countries and coordinated by the Carter Center’s Onchocerciasis
Elimination Program for the Americas (OEPA) have reduced the number of
people at risk of onchocerciasis to just over 25,000. In 2013 and 2014,
respectively, Colombia and Ecuador were officially verified as having
eliminated the disease.

Most recently, in July, Mexico became the third country to receive
verification by WHO of its elimination of onchocerciasis. In addition,
Guatemala has submitted a request for verification, with a country visit
anticipated for early 2016. This leaves only one area with active
transmission: the shared border region between Brazil and the Bolivarian
Republic of Venezuela that is home to the Yanomami indigenous people.

The linchpin of the elimination strategy—which is also being used in
Africa—is the mass administration of the antiparasitic drug Mectizan®
(ivermectin), which is produced and provided by Merck free of charge
through its Mectizan® Donation Program. Since its beginning in 1987, the
donation program has worked to ensure twice-yearly mass treatment of
affected communities and by 2006, that goal had been achieved in all 13
endemic areas in the Americas.

“We are humbled by the great work of the alliance of partners and
countries to protect future generations from this disease that carries
such devastating implications for people, families and communities,”
said Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, executive vice president, Strategic
Communications, Global Public Policy and Population Health at Merck &
Co., Inc. “Through the Mectizan® Donation Program, our company has
committed to donating this medicine for as long as it’s needed, and we
look forward to celebrating the day when river blindness has been
eliminated worldwide.”

The core partners who have supported the ministries of health of the
affect countries include the Carter Center’s OEPA, PAHO/WHO, the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Merck & Co. Inc.’s
Mectizan Donation Program, and a host of international partners,
foundations, universities, and individuals.

The final push to eliminate onchocerciasis from the Brazil-Venezuela
border area represents a major challenge because of the dispersed and
migratory nature of the Yanomami population, who live in small
communities in the dense, nearly inaccessible terrain of the deep Amazon
rainforest and mountains. The ministries of health of Brazil and
Venezuela are working with The Carter Center/OEPA, PAHO/WHO, and other
partners to ensure the necessary treatment is delivered to the Yanomami
people to meet the goal of eliminating onchocerciasis from the area—and
therefore from the Americas as a whole—by 2020.

About PAHO

Established in 1902, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is the
world’s oldest international public health organization and works with
all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of
life of their peoples. PAHO serves as the Regional Office for the
Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO). Visit
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Spanish, Facebook,
and Linkedin.

About The Carter Center and OEPA

A not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, The Carter Center has
helped to improve life for people in more than 80 countries by resolving
conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity;
preventing diseases; and improving mental health care. The Center was
founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife,
Rosalynn, in partnership with Emory University, to advance peace and
health worldwide. Launched in 1993 with funding from the River Blindness
Foundation and absorbed by the Carter Center in 1996, the Center’s OEPA
has played a key role in assisting ministries of health of the affected
Latin American countries to eliminate transmission of onchocerciasis
within their borders. The Carter Center has continued to pioneer
multiple disease elimination approaches in Africa and Latin America.
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and Instagram @TheCarterCenter

About Merck & Co. Inc and the Mectizan® Donation Program

Today’s Merck (NYSE:MRK), is a global health care leader working to help
the world be well. Merck is known as MSD outside the United States and
Canada. Through its prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic
therapies, and animal health products, Merck works with customers and
operates in more than 140 countries to deliver innovative health
solutions. Merck also demonstrates its commitment to increasing access
to health care through far-reaching policies, programs and partnerships.
For more information, visit
| Connect with Merck on Twitter,
and YouTube.

In October 1987, Merck announced it would donate the medication
Mectizan® to all who need it for as long as necessary until
onchocerciasis is eliminated as a public health problem. The Mectizan®
Donation Program reaches more than 150 million people annually. In Latin
America, since 1989, more than 13 million treatments of donated
Mectizan® have been delivered by community health workers and
non-governmental organizations.

Leticia Linn, 202-974-3440
The Carter Center/OEPA
Emily Staub, 404-420-5126
Merck & Co, Inc. (known and MSD outside of the United States and Canada)
Veronica Trulin, On-site, 908-656-5590
Lainie Keller, Kenilworth , NJ, 908-236-5036
M: +1 908-406-1459

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