Vince Campanella remembers the hundreds of people who showed up in a remote village of the Kilosa area of Tanzania, Africa, seeking a little pill that would alleviate the terrible itching they were suffering from river blindness.
"That was the most significant thing - I'm in a village where we expected to see 20 people and 300 people came," said Campanella, a member of Bonds Meadow Rotary Club that helped raise money for the Kilosa Region River Blindness Project.
"We were watching Dr. Glen Brubaker, a medical doctor with the group, and he wasn't planning to treat the people that day," Campanella continued, "but he pulled out some pills and the demand was so great, they treated 178 people."
Bonds Meadow Rotary Club is one of 18 clubs in the Central Maryland-Pennsylvania Rotary District 7620 that has taken on the river blindness project to help an estimated 400,000 people in Tanzania who are infected or risk being infected by river blindness.
Campanella, of Sykesville; Brubaker from Pennsylvania; Paul Derstine, president of Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., part of the New Windsor Brethren Service Center; and Ray Pancyk, district Rotarian from Montgomery County, spent from Nov. 30 to Dec. 8 in Tanzania to get a firsthand look at the devastating effects of river blindness.
"The disease starts with the bite of the black fly, which is the transmitter," said Vickie Johnson, communications manager for Derstine. "The fly transmits the microfilaria, or parasitic worm, to the person, then goes to the next person and infects them with the larvae."
While the larvae is growing into an adult worm, it causes terrible itching. Eventually, the worm migrates to the eyes, causing blindness. The disease, medically known as onchocerciasis, gets its common name from the fly that breeds in fast-moving water, mainly rivers, then causes the blindness.
"The life span of the adult worm is 12 to 14 years, so the infected person has to have a dose of the medicine once a year for 10 to 12 years to make sure the adult worm is killed," Johnson said.
Once the drug - Mectizan, a deworming medication - is taken, the itching can stop within 48 hours, or three to five days at the most, Campanella said. The drug prevents blindness that has not occurred and halts further blindness.
"A lot of people don't know they have the disease and don't realize they need to take the medicine to protect the whole community," Campanella said.
One villager didn't want to take the pill from Brubaker because the man said he was healthy, Campanella said.
"The conversation was extended, and a couple of us said the guy would take the pill just to shut up Dr. Brubaker," Campanella said. "The doctor eventually lost his Diet Coke to the man, who finally took the pill."
Many agencies and organizations are involved in the River Blindness Project worldwide, including IMA, the World Bank, African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control and the Tanzanian Ministry of Health.
In addition to the money raised from such groups as Rotary, Sightsavers International and Helen Keller Worldwide, the pharmaceutical company that makes the Mectizan, Merck & Co. of New Jersey, is donating an estimated $1.8 million worth of the pills to the Tanzanian program.
Rotary District 7620 and the Tanzanian Rotary raised $50,000 for the program, which was then matched by Rotary International, Campanella said.
"We had 18 other clubs join hands with us and contribute money in $400 increments," he said. "Each $400 helps 2,600 people."
Although the medication is being donated, money is needed for such things as training and education for those involved, recordkeeping and follow-up visits.
Campanella noted that many of the affected people live in remote villages, making access to them difficult and costly.
"It's a whole different culture, a different language - they speak Swahili. It's a poor country, there's great instability," he said. "The terrain, weather and accessibility make it hard to get to people. It was hot and humid, there was no radio, TV, thermometers, and we were in a place where they only have power every other day."
Nonetheless, even without the amenities, Campanella said, "We accomplished most of our goals we went there for. We met with the key medical people and because of the number of people, we saw what could be done. This was the greatest thing next to a healing drug - it's a mission of healing where you can see immediate results."
Derstine also was impressed with the Rotary efforts and the difference the additional money and aid provided.
"To be part of such a massive effort to provide a drug that will stop the incessant itching within 48 hours and prevent blindness for nearly half a million people is to be part of a mission of healing that I would not have thought possible even two years ago," Derstine said.