A parasitic worm invisible to the human eye is so feared in Africa that families have sometimes fled their homes and farmland to escape the devastating disease it causes.
Now a breakthrough diagnostic tool developed by PATH is accelerating efforts to stamp out river blindness, or onchocerciasis, putting global elimination within reach.
In 2014, PATH and our partners launched the affordable, easy-to-use diagnostic test that can detect previous exposure to the parasite in minutes. The test is tailored for use in poor, rural communities that sit next to the streams and rivers that are the breeding ground for the blackfly, which transmits the parasite to humans.
River blindness is a leading cause of preventable blindness in Africa, where more than 25 million people are infected with the disease. An estimated 123 million people are at risk globally.
Since 2010, PATH has worked with our partners to develop the test and bring it to market, navigating a number of hurdles along the way. We tested and refined the diagnostic based on user feedback, conducted lab and field evaluations, identified the manufacturer, and helped ensure the test would meet quality and performance requirements.
The first 15,000 tests to roll off the manufacturing line were shipped to Nigeria and Togo for use in demonstration studies. Countries can use the tool for community-wide testing to determine if control strategies have been successful or if they need to be continued to achieve elimination.
The test requires just a drop of blood from a finger prick—a vast improvement over the existing test, which involves a painful skin snip procedure.
The river blindness test represents the first in a suite of diagnostics aimed at eliminating a group of illnesses known as neglected tropical diseases, which affect more than 1 billion people worldwide.
Together with our partners, we are expanding our work to bring to market a new dual-detection test for both river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, a disease that causes disfigurement and disability and often affects the same communities. It could be a cost-effective solution to support integrated disease surveillance and improve coordination among disease control programs.
PATH is also leveraging our expertise and global network of partners to speed development of additional diagnostic tools to tackle other neglected tropical diseases, such as schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthiasis.
These tools will be pivotal in reaching the goal set by the World Health Organization—to control, eliminate, or eradicate 17 neglected tropical diseases, including river blindness, by 2020.
More than 200,000 river blindness diagnostic tests are forecast to be sold in Africa by fall 2015.
Key partners: AbD Serotec, a Bio-Rad company; African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control; Erasmus University Rotterdam; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health; Standard Diagnostics, Inc.; The Task Force for Global Health; Togo Ministry of Health; University of South Florida; University of Tübingen; US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Washington University in St. Louis.
Key funder: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.