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Gov’t Starts Mass Treatment of River Blindness Among South Sudan Refugees

David Oguttu, the programme Manager for the National Onchocerciasis Elimination programme says enrolling the refugees in mass treatment will help Uganda achieve its policy of eliminating Onchocerciasis.
15 Oct 2021 18:38
South Sudanese refugees attend a meeting at Zone 4 in Bidi Bidi Refugee settlement in Yumbe district on April 3 2019.

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The Ministry of Health has kicked off mass administration of drugs for river blindness disease among South Sudan refugees in Northern Uganda.

The exercise, the first of its kind comes nearly two years after the Health Ministry rolled out plans to conduct mass treatment of river blindness in refugee settlements to eliminate threats of river blindness in the country. 

It followed recommendations from stakeholders during an August 2018 meeting of the Uganda Onchocerciasis elimination expert Advisory committee convened by the Health Ministry that called for the inclusion of refugees in mass treatment in a bid to eliminate cross-border Transmission of river blindness.

Launched on Thursday in Palabek Refugee Settlement in Lamwo District, the mass treatment exercise targets some 40,000 refugees above five years out of the total 58,000 population of South Sudan refugees in Lamwo District.

David Oguttu, the Programme Manager for the National Onchocerciasis Elimination programme says enrolling the refugees in mass treatment will help Uganda achieve its policy of eliminating Onchocerciasis.

He notes that whereas the host communities were undergoing treatment, the refugees who come from communities highly endemic to Onchocerciasis were not, and thus jeopardizing the Onchocerciasis elimination policy. 

In 2007, the Ministry of Health launched a river blindness elimination policy aimed at eliminating the disease in the country by 2020.

Although the country hasn’t achieved its target, Oguttu further exclusion of the refugees from treatment would make it practically impossible to eliminate the disease.

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Oguttu says a total of 50,000 doses of Ivermectin drugs donated from the World Health Organization-WHO through, the Mectizan Donation Program has been dispatched by the Health Ministry Palabek Refugee settlement for the exercise.

He notes that the Health Ministry, the Office of the Prime Minister-OPM and humanitarian agency UNHCR along with other partners in the refugee settlement have conducted advocacy and training of health officials in the implementation of the exercise.

Axel Okurut, the Assistant Settlement Commandant at Palabek Refugee Settlement lauded the move taken by the government in ensuring the refugees are treated against river blindness. Okurut says the move will boost up the government’s commitment to eliminating onchocerciasis both within the host and the refugee communities.

John Paskwali, the Chairperson of Palabek Refugee settlement lauded the Health Ministry for considering refugees in mass treatment for river blindness.

He however encouraged the refugee communities to embrace the mass treatment citing the drugs are safe.

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River blindness also known as Onchocerciasis is a neglected tropical disease caused by Onchocerca volvulus, a parasitic worm spread by bites from infected black flies that breed in fast-flowing rivers and streams. 

Once a person has been bitten by a blackfly infected with Onchocerca volvulus, symptoms may take between one to two years before manifesting.  The symptoms include severe itching of the skin, changes in skin pigmentation, bumps under the skin, itching of the eyes, loss of skin elasticity, visual impairment, including permanent blindness.

In Northern Uganda, the transmission zone for Onchocerciasis is Lamwo, Kitgum, Pader, Moyo, Adjumani, Amuru, Gulu, Oyam, Nwoya, Omoro, and Lira. 

Uganda has registered strides in combatting river blindness since 2007 when it launched a nationwide transmission elimination policy based on twice-per-year treatment and vector control/elimination.

But Health Experts says the resurgence of blackflies in endemic areas especially in Northern Uganda hosting a greater number of South Sudan refugees who aren't receiving treatment could water down the achievements. Recently, the communities in Pader and Lamwo District residing along Aswa River raised complaints of an upsurge in the population of blackflies, sparking fears of nodding syndrome and river blindness outbreaks.

Dr Alfred Mubangizi, the assistant commissioner for vector-borne and neglected tropical disease at the Health Ministry on Friday says that mass administration of drugs to both host and refugees will yield impacts in eliminating river blindness.

Dr Mubangizi also noted that the government has employed locals along with areas where fresh breeding of blackflies is taking place to conduct slashing and clearing of bushes to destroy the natural habitat of the flies. The practice replaces the use of Abate (a chemical)  sprayed in rivers and streams to kill the black flies. 

Uganda currently hosts 933,089 refugees from South Sudan as of September 30 Office of the Prime Minister data.

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