Curing River Blindness with Just One Dose

June 5th, 2013

Mabinty Koroma

Mabinty Koroma. Photo courtesy of Helen Keller International.

In June 2011, fourteen-year-old Mabinty Koroma was about to take the year-end exam in her middle school. One afternoon whilst in class, Mabinty noticed that she could barely see the writing on the blackboard. She went home that day thinking it was just temporary; but the following morning Mabinty was unable to read her notes and her vision was getting worse. “It became obvious that I couldn’t see well enough to take my exam and would have to drop out of school. My elder brother took me to various traditional healers in many villages in Moyamba district. We went to so many places that I can’t even remember all their names,” said Mabinty.

After a 15-month search for a traditional healer to restore Mabinty’s sight proved fruitless, her family was advised to take her to the eye hospital at Serabu, 40 kilometers from Bo, where Mabinty was attending school. In Serabu, there was no doctor to attend to Mabinty. However, the family decided to stay in Serabu rather than return to Bo.

Shortly thereafter, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS), with support from Helen Keller International (HKI) and funding from USAID through the END in Africa project, started advocacy and social mobilization efforts to raise awareness about neglected tropical disease (NTD) control activities in the 12 provincial health districts, including Bo.

Using radio discussion programs and promotional jingles on mass drug administration and the use of preventive chemotherapy against NTDs such as lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis (“river blindness”) and soil-transmitted helminthes, the MoHS and HKI were working to spread the word that community residents could protect themselves and their children from such diseases just by taking medicine once a year.  With support from its partners, the MoHS distributes millions of doses of ivermectin and albendazole annually in all 14 health districts in Sierra Leone to combat those NTDs.

In addition to the radio promotions, local health workers held a series of community meetings prior to the treatment campaign to further sensitize the public about the benefits of taking treatment, and to encourage community leaders to get the word out to their respective communities.

Over the years, Mabinty and her family had heard some of the radio broadcasts about local NTD control efforts and the national treatment campaign. However, they’d always believed that only people living in the country’s rural areas got NTDs. Since they themselves had always lived in the city, they’d never imagined that they’d be at risk of getting any of those diseases. And so in the past, they’d simply ignored the messages about NTD control efforts, which had started several years earlier in all urban and rural districts of Sierra Leone, and had not gotten any of the annual treatments for lymphatic filariasis and soil transmitted helminthiasis that had been distributed in their community for the past five years.

Now as they tried to cope with her devastating vision loss, however, their attitudes were quickly changing and Mabinty’s family began to open their minds to the possibility that she may indeed be suffering from onchocerciasis, one of the NTDs found in Sierra Leone.  And so, when Mabinty and her father heard that annual NTD control efforts were about to begin again in Serabu, this time they were ready to listen.

“One evening, I was with my father when we heard a town crier saying the drugs for “oncho” and “Bigfut” (as it’s commonly called in the villages) had arrived at the health centre and that distribution would soon start,” she recalled.

After hearing the news, they decided that taking the medicine was worth a shot. Later that week, the community drug distributor visited Mabinty’s house and administered two drug regimens (ivermectin and albendazole) to her.

At first, Mabinty regretted having taken the drugs. “Twenty-four hours after taking the treatment, I felt sick and my eyes began to itch. I started scratching my body and kept on scratching for 3 days,” she said. Fortunately, the peripheral health unit staff in the village health center gave her a medication called Piriton and penicillin eye ointment to stop the itching.

After the initial discomfort from the treatment subsided, however, Mabinty discovered that what seemed to be a miracle had occurred. Her vision had improved and she was able to see clearly again.  So clearly that she was even able to return to her formal school in Bo, St. Andrews Junior Secondary School!

“If I hadn’t gotten my eyesight back, I would never have been able to sit for my Basic Education Certificate Examination,” said Mabinty with a smile. “I say thanks to the CDD and those who made the drugs available to me free of charge, even though I don’t know them personally or their organizations.”

Mabinty’s family is very happy to see her back in school. Her father is now a member of the village health committee and a very strong community organizer. Grateful for the recovery of her eyesight, he now wants to make sure that girls like Mabinty continue to receive annual treatments until the disease has been completely eliminated from the community.

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