An American pharmaceutical manufacturer has donated its new "miracle" discovery of a cure for river blindness. Distribution, coordinated by the World Health Organization, is expected to begin before the end of the year.
The only risk to speedy distribution is the fact that WHO has been crippled by the failure of the United States to pay $87.6 million in assessments due last year and this year. This has forced the U.N. agency to cut back its primary health-care programs. If full funding is restored, there is hope that the disease can be eradicated by the year 2000, according to Dr. Halfdan Mahler, WHO director general.
Merck & Co. has developed a simple and safe drug that kills within human beings the parasite responsible for the dreaded onchocerciasis. The disease is endemic in West Africa, the Sudan and Yemen, as well as in areas of six Latin American nations. The drug is called Mectizan, a derivative of ivermectin, used since 1981 to kill parasites in animals. An annual dosage of one or two pills is all that is required for human treatment, thus simplifying the problem of distribution in isolated areas.
Because most victims of the disease are impoverished and their governments lack substantial resources, Merck has chosen to make the drug available without charge. WHO officials and a number of congressional leaders have praised the generosity of the company. The praise is appropriate. The research, not including the manufacturing costs, represents a gift measured in millions of dollars. The importance is great. In West Africa alone, 326,000 people have been blinded by the disease and 17 million are currently infected, and 97,000 others are infected and 1,400 are already blind in infected areas of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.