Fighting to eliminate river blindness, the disease affecting millions of people in Cameroon

Áilín Quinlan talks to Dr Joseph Oye about his work with Sightsavers, a charity that fights avoidable blindness in places such as Cameroon

Fighting to eliminate river blindness, the disease affecting millions of people in Cameroon

A few weeks ago, Dr Joseph Oye got a phone-call from his brother Ruben.

A mechanic who is married with six children, Reuben was worried.

His sight had begun to deteriorate, he reported. He also had a very serious skin rash — his skin was hard and dry and cracked.

Reuben told his brother he feared he was ill. He was deeply worried that his livelihood — and therefore, the welfare of his large family — could be put at risk if he lost his sight.

Joseph asked Ruben, who lives and works in Littoral, a remote part of Cameroon, to make the 400km trip to meet with him in Yaounde, capital of the central African country.

Ruben made the journey, and met with Joseph, who brought him to have tests.

And indeed, just as Joseph suspected — Dr Oye is the Director of the Cameroon Country office of Sightsavers, a charity which fights avoidable blindness — Ruben was one of the millions of people in Cameroon with a well-advanced case of onchocerciasis, or river blindness.

This is a parasitic disease transmitted by a black fly which breeds near fast-flowing water, such as rivers, that many communities depend on for drinking water, washing and bathing.

The fly bite passes worm larvae into the skin. The worms breed and spread around the body, causing pain and infection. When the worms die, they trigger the body’s immune system and the ensuing inflammation can lead to blindness.

The impact and reach of the disease is so extensive in Cameroon that whole communities often flee severely-infected areas, leaving behind ghost villages and abandoned crops.

The fight to eliminate river blindness, which affects millions of people in all over Cameroon just like Ruben — from children as young as five to adults in their eighties, is one of the main planks of Joseph’s work.

Joseph — who saw to it that, following diagnosis, his brother received the treatment he needed — runs an office with nine staff in Yaounde. He oversees another office, with one worker, in the North of the country, a territory under attack from the infamous Boko Haram.

In conjunction with Sightsavers — an international charity working in more than 30 countries across Africa and Asia training eye experts, carrying out millions of eye examinations and organising operations and treatment — and with annual funding of €300,000 from Irish Aid, Ireland’s official overseas development programme, Joseph and his co-workers treat some 4.5m people a year for the condition, which they aim to eliminate by 2025.

The Irish Aid grant funds the training of about 22,000 community workers and programme supervisors who run the programme.

These locally-based workers educate communities about how the medication — provided free by pharmaceutical company Merck — works, distributes the medication and ensures a strong up-take. Put simply, the medicine, which comes in the form of drops, kills the parasitic worm.

It’s a once-annual treatment, though, observes Joseph, the spread of the disease in some areas is such that they are currently considering the administration of the drops twice a year.

“One of the biggest socio-economic impacts of this disease is that people leave their village which are usually on fertile land, and go to less productive regions because they realise the reason why so many people in the village are blind,” he explains.

“For a long time they may not have understood why and then somebody makes the connection and they leave.”

It’s very much a group effort however — failure by members of the public to take the drops keeps the parasite alive in the body and severely impedes attempts to eliminate the disease from the community:

“That’s why the community must be educated about how the medication works,” says Joseph , who spent a week in Ireland in early April meeting with Irish Aid officials and presenting an update on the work of his organisation.

A medical doctor who has specialised in both public health ophthalmology and international development, Joseph has been providing and advocating for the provision of quality eye care services and research across Africa for years. His work on disability and the social inclusion of people with disabilities has had a significant impact on the Cameroon society, with many government and non-government stakeholders now paying greater attention to disability as a result of his initiatives.

The Irish Aid-funded programme run by Joseph also includes treatment for another serious eye disease, trachoma, a contagious bacterial infection of the eye, along with the provision of cataract operations in community clinics, and support for children with blindness and other special needs to enter mainstream education — in Cameroon, these children are often kept at home.

However, with the support of Irish Aid, Sightsavers provides teacher training and assistive resources such as braille paper.

In the past two years Oye’s organisation has overseen the enrolment of about 60 children, many of them blind, in mainstream schools across the country. The Cameroon government is increasingly coming on board, and nationwide, the provision of mainstream school education for children with special needs is gradually expanding across the country.

“We are demonstrating to the Cameroon government that it is possible through these pilot programme and the government is now supporting these inclusive education initiatives,” Joseph explains.

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