By: Patti Strand  Date: 01/27/2012

In 1987, Merck & Company began a plan to donate its drug Mectizan to tropical nations suffering from river blindness, a debilitating parasite-borne disease that can infect millions of people annually. As a result of the company's generosity, millions of people have been delivered from the misery of infection and the invasion of eye tissue by microscopic worms, and nation after nation has announced that the disease is no longer a major health threat.

In October 2003, the Lions Club International, a partner in the international effort to fight the disease, announced that a milestone of 50 million doses of Mectizan had been reached and that river blindness is no longer a major health threat in Africa.

Caused by a bacteria that lives in parasitic worms that infest the human body, river blindness (onchocerciasis) is spread by black flies that live along rivers and insert the microscopic worms under the skin when they bite. The worms multiply into the hundreds of thousands, causing severe itching that leads victims to tear at their own skin and in its severest form leads to visual impairment and eventual blindness.

A human form of Merck's animal drug ivermectin, Mectizan kills the worms before they can multiply and travel through the body to the eyes. Recent research indicates that the disease can also be cured by treatment with antibiotics, but Merck was ahead of the game with its Mectizan donations to the international effort to eradicate the disease.

Along with human misery, onchocerciasis has an enormous economic impact - it prevents people from working, harvesting crops, receiving an education, or caring for children. More than 18 million people in tropical Africa, parts of Central and South America, and the Middle Eastern country of Yemen have been infected with the disease, and more than a million suffer visual impairment as a result.

In the 16 years it has been involved in the program, Merck has donated more than 700 million Mectizan tablets. The company also helped form a coalition of public agencies, private organizations, and on-site health care workers to create a workable system for delivering the medication to those who need it. The result is a model for development of health care delivery systems in the developing world.

The river blindness program has been so successful that the company will donate more doses to fight lymphatic filariasis in African countries where this disease occurs along with river blindness. Millions of Africans are at risk from lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis.

For more information, see the Congressional Record comments by New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, September 12, 2002, and the October 21, 2003, press release from Lions Club International Foundation.

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