Carrying help to East Africa Distributing medicine: Don M. Padgett traveled from Carroll County to Tanzania with a drug to ease suffering from river blindness, a debilitating disease.

January 04, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A lifesaving drug, delivered from Carroll County, has eased the suffering of 200,000 East Africans infected with river blindness.

Don M. Padgett helped distribute ivermectin to remote villages in Tanzania and continues to monitor the program from his office at Brethren Service Center in New Windsor.

The pharmaceutical services director for Interchurch Medical Assistance (IMA), Mr. Padgett made one trip to the East African country in July and another last month to make sure the program remains on schedule. He saw how one dose of ivermectin gives immediate relief from the symptoms of the debilitating disease, formally known as onchocerciasis.

River blindness, caused by a parasite carried by a fly indigenous to river areas, causes unsightly rashes, severe itching and skin depigmentation, and significantly shortens a life span. Unless treated, the disease eventually results in blindness.

"River blindness is an ancient scourge that caused people to abandon their most fertile lands and become a burden to their societies," Mr. Padgett said. "It meant hopeless lives and blindness by the time they were 30."

Many victims spoke of "intense, persistent and relentless itching, that takes over their lives and reduces productivity," Mr. Padgett said.

He continually saw people scratching, often with sticks, rocks, even knives.

Devastating impact

"In school, children can't concentrate," Mr. Padgett said. "Victims can't sleep. Mothers cannot attend to their children. They never adapt to the itching. The skin becomes dry, wrinkled and loses elasticity. Women, especially, are ousted from society."

One $3 tablet stops the production of new worms in the host for a year and almost immediately ends the itching.

"One victim told me he had not slept for years because of the itching," Mr. Padgett said. "He had almost overnight relief. Everywhere we saw immediate results."

The drug may help eliminate the disease from the entire African continent early next century, he said.

World health organizations have joined the effort to eradicate river blindness, which affects 85 million worldwide.

"We can wipe out the disease globally, but we have to attack it from all points," Mr. Padgett said. "I really hope to work myself out of a job."

The distribution program, which IMA is leaving in the hands of Tanzanian health officials, involves education and recordkeeping.

Travel to 118 villages

In July, Mr. Padgett and a team of Tanzanian health workers traveled to 118 villages, often on bicycles, donated by Carroll County Lions Clubs. Communities, along rivers infested with the fly, are most susceptible to the disease and often most inaccessible.

The bicycles, "all durable and fixable," really helped, he said.

The IMA program matches the Lions' commitment to eliminate preventable blindness, said Stanley W. Holcombe, treasurer of the Union Bridge club. Before his first trip, Mr. Padgett gave slide presentations to clubs. Members immediately offered six bicycles.

"We are fully behind the project and will keep up our support," Mr. Holcombe said.

Entire villages, targeted as high risk, have received a yearly dose of the drug, which Merck & Co. developed 10 years ago. The United States pharmaceutical company is providing its product at no cost to IMA and paying for its shipment to port cities in countries where river blindness is most prevalent.

"Merck has pledged to continue its donation," said Kathleen Campanella, spokeswoman for the New Windsor center.

Village leaders were among the first to take the dosage, Mr. Padgett said.

"They demonstrated there was no problem and preached about the benefits," he said. "Eventually, everyone was willing to take it. Hearing the medicine could help stop itching and let them sleep was enough incentive."

No side effects

The dosage, based on height, is safe and easy to take and those treated reported no side effects, he said. Only nursing or pregnant women and children younger than 5 are prohibited from the treatment.

Once people heard of the benefits, many walked miles to receive it.

"We told them to return to their villages and tell them we were coming," Mr. Padgett said. "In two days, we distributed ivermectin to 1,200 people."

Because the adult worm can live and reproduce in its host for 15 years, patients must receive annual doses. They are not cured, but the disease will not progress. Continuing the program is vital, Ms. Campanella said.

"The itching will stop; the scarring will heal and they won't get any worse," she said. "What a comfort this is to the people."

Many may return to farm the fertile lands abandoned out of fear of contracting the disease, Mr. Padgett said.

Village leaders are learning to keep careful records and eventually will supervise the distribution program.

Mr. Padgett receives monthly reports and expects the initial phase to end this month. He may work himself out of the job.

"It looks like it is right on track," he said. "It is the Tanzanians' program. They are making it on their own."

Mr. Padgett has new slides from his trips. His favorite is a photo of a large group of children all giving the thumbs-up sign.

"It is as though they are saying the program is a success," he said.

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