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River blindness, a devastating tropical disease that affects 18 million people worldwide, is caused by parasitic worms, carried by biting flies, that burrow through the skin and release millions of tiny offspring that spread throughout the body.

But the worms themselves probably aren't the main culprits causing the disease's symptoms, reports an international team of scientists in the 8 March issue of Science. Instead, it's the worms' cargo of Wolbachia bacteria that provokes the body's severe inflammatory response, leading to blindness and serious skin disorders.

Pinpointing these bacteria as the direct factor behind the disease's virulence may suggest new therapies for combating river blindness, especially since recent studies have shown that the bacteria can be killed by the common antibiotic doxycycline.

Amelié v. Saint André and colleagues show in a mouse model that the body's immune response to Wolbachia is the main cause of the corneal inflammation that leads to vision loss.

Reference: Science, 8 March 2002

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