A $7 million grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded a $7 million grant to Washington University School of Medicine researchers that is aimed at eliminating river blindness and elephantiasis.
The grant supports a team, led by Gary Weil, MD, that is conducting 12 field projects in eight countries in Africa and in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a university press release. The new funding is timely because it allows a research project to resume in Lofa County in the West African country of Liberia. The project was suspended in March 2014 because of the Ebola epidemic.
Weil’s research in Liberia and other parts of Africa and Asia has been supported by the Gates Foundation since 2010. With the addition of the latest grant, the foundation has contributed $20 million to Weil and his team’s efforts to develop and evaluate new treatments for river blindness, elephantiasis and intestinal worm infections, all of which are common in tropical countries.
“These diseases collectively affect 2 billion people in the developing world,” Weil said in the release. “They cause disability, blindness, developmental delays and stunting in millions. We already have made great strides, and if we can further reduce the impact of elephantiasis and lymphatic filariasis through mass treatment programs, we stand a much better chance of improving the health of individuals and families and making a big difference in communities.”
River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, afflicts some 37 million people in more than 30 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The illness is spread by black flies that breed in fast-flowing rivers, hence the name river blindness. While the disease can lead to blindness if left untreated, it more commonly causes less severe visual impairment, disfiguring skin lesions and severe itching.
Elephantiasis – also known as lymphatic filariasis – can lead to severe enlargement and deformities of the legs and genitals. The mosquito-borne illness affects 120 million people, mostly in Africa and Asia, leaving some 40 million profoundly disfigured and incapacitated.
Weil’s research project is known by the acronym DOLF, or Death to Onchocerciasis and Lymphatic Filariasis. He has been active for years in efforts to eliminate lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis via mass drug administration in endemic areas, which involves giving medication to everyone in areas with high infection rates, regardless of whether particular individuals have the illness.
As part of the research, the Washington University researchers are evaluating whether twice-yearly mass drug administration is more effective and less costly in the long run than annual treatment, the current gold standard. They are also testing whether different doses and combinations of existing drugs can more quickly and effectively cure the infections compared with current treatment regimens.