Lifesaving medications are headed for most remote regions in Africa

July 06, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

A New Windsor man is taking lifesaving drugs to remotest Africa and may be traveling to the most inaccessible villages on bicycles donated by Carroll County Lions Clubs.

Don M. Padgett leaves tomorrow for Tanzania, where he will supervise distribution of the ivermectin drug to 350,000 residents of 118 villages.

Many of those people are already infected with river blindness, which causes unsightly rashes, severe itching, skin depigmentation, blindness and death.

Tablets, worth $3 each, can eradicate the disease, formally known as onchocerciasis, and its cycle of misery for millions of people.

"We can break the cycle and stop the disease," said Mr. Padgett, who is pharmaceutical services director for Interchurch Medical Assistance (IMA) in New Windsor.

"The first dose helps, but people have to take one-per-year for 15 years," he said. "Medicine can stop the progress of the disease, but it can't reverse it. So, we must try to catch it early enough."

Through its hospitals and clinics, IMA hopes eventually to distribute an annual dose of the medicine to the 85 million people worldwide who are at risk for the disease.

Merck & Co., a U.S. pharmaceutical company that developed ivermectin about 10 years ago, is providing the product at no cost to IMA and paying for its shipment to port cities in countries where river blindness is most prevalent.

Mr. Padgett has prepared for nearly a year to get ivermectin to the people of Tanzania, where the disease affects about 600,000 residents of rural areas.

Once established, the distribution project must continue, if it is to have long-lasting results. One dose of ivermectin stops the production of new worms in the host for a year and almost immediately stops the itching associated with the disease.

But because the adult worm can live and reproduce in its host for up to 15 years, patients must have annual doses.

Mr. Padgett has several pictures in his office at Brethren Service Center in New Windsor. The saddest shows children leading blind adults, feeling their way with long sticks.

Kathleen Campanella of the Brethren Service Center, where IMA has offices and a distribution center, said, "The medicine can keep these children from ending up like the ones they are leading."

River blindness starts with the bite of the blackfly, which deposits parasitic worms in its victims. The worms cluster in unsightly nodules under the skin and can affect every organ in the body. In areas where the life expectancy rarely reaches 50, the disease can reduce a life span by as much as 15 years.

"Health workers can count nodules on victims," Mr. Padgett said. "If 20 percent of a village is infected, that is enough reason to treat the entire village."

Ms. Campanella said the treatment is "wonderful for children, who may never have to go through the disease."

River blindness most frequently affects the village's young men, who work in the fields near the running streams, where the fly larva develops. Worldwide, about 18 million people are infected with the disease, with 1 million suffering from visual impairment, Mr. Padgett said.

River blindness is prevalent in tropical Africa, but also found in South America and parts of Asia.

Mr. Padgett will be working, through Tanzania's existing health system, in the most heavily infected areas of the East African country.

IMA hopes to make the distribution project part of the Tanzanian national health program.

Training, according to World Health Organization guidelines, "goes down the line," Mr. Padgett said. "Each level is instructed on the why and what of the disease and then on distribution and record keeping," he said.

Mobile teams will travel as far as possible in vehicles. To the more inaccessible areas, they will ride on bicycles donated by four Carroll County Lions Clubs. Mr. Padgett interested the clubs in the project with a graphic slide show and an informative discussion.

"When people see the devastation and find out there is a medication, the results are fabulous," Ms. Campanella said.

"Don often speaks to local clubs and has been working with International Lions on the Sight First program. People just say they want to help and it snowballs."

The teams will help distribute ivermectin to all people at risk.

Each village will also have a trained health officer to distribute medicine and keep records current.

"The work must be done by the local population, through the existing health system," Mr. Padgett said.

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