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The Global Partnership to Eliminate Riverblindness, a public-private partnership involving various UN agencies, African governments, NGOs and private companies, has pledged $39 million to wipe out the disease — technically known as onchocerciasis — in Africa by 2010.

Funds will go towards the second phase of the African Program for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), which already treats 25 million people with the drug Mectizan. The drug will be donated by the pharmaceutical multinational Merck & Co, and will be delivered through community-based distribution in 19 countries.

The Global Partnership is sponsored by the World Bank, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Development Program and the Food and Agriculture Authority. It will need to double its fundraising, however, if the programme is to reach its target of eradicating the disease from Africa within the next decade.

Riverblindness is primarily found in rural communities, and threatens 80 per cent of the African population that depend on farming for their livelihoods. The parasitic worm causes blindness in up to a third of those infected.

Earlier programmes focused on controlling the blackfly disease vector and distributing preventative drugs and have virtually eliminated the disease from 11 West African countries. Ebrahim Samba, WHO’s regional director for Africa, says that the success of previous programmes “proves it can be done”, and demonstrates that “effective aid programmes deliver lasting results”.

The APOC community drug distribution network will also be used to fight other common diseases, including Bilharzia and Vitamin A deficiency.

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