New tool makes diagnosing river blindness faster, cheaper and less painful

A health worker takes a drop of blood from the finger of a person in Togo during a 2014 PATH field study of the SD BIOLINE Onchocerciasis IgG4 rapid test for river blindness. Photo by: Dunia Faulx / PATH

Tackling neglected tropical diseases that disproportionately affect poor and developing communities requires collaboration across sectors and sustainable partnerships committed to helping people live longer, healthier lives free of disease.

This collaborative mentality is embraced by scientists and development professionals at international health nonprofit PATH, who announced Sunday the availability of a new diagnostic test for onchocerciasis, more commonly known as river blindness.

With funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH worked with the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and South Korea-based manufacturing firm Standard Diagnostics to roll out the new diagnostic tool, which they hope will play a critical role in accelerating the eradication of river blindness.

“We do almost all of our work with partners,” David Kaslow, vice president for product development at PATH, told Devex. “One of things we actually pride ourselves in is not just bilateral partnerships, but multilateral partnerships — bringing together the competencies and the expertise of a diverse group of people who wouldn’t normally come together to work on a really difficult problem.”

River blindness — one of the 17 neglected tropical diseases targeted by the World Health Organization for control, elimination or eradication by 2020 — has wreaked havoc on poor communities near rivers and streams for decades and is particularly prevalent in Central Africa, where an estimated 18 million people are infected, according to PATH.

Caused by a parasitic worm, river blindness is transmitted to humans by blackflies who typically breed near rivers and streams. The parasite causes itching, disfiguration of the skin, and can lead to irreversible blindness. Beyond the obvious health implications, the disease brings economic turmoil to communities who leave fertile lands to escape infection.

The new diagnostic tool developed by PATH and its partners, known as the IgG4 rapid test, is designed for use in rural environments with limited resources. Requiring a finger prick to examine a small drop of blood, it is less painful than previous diagnostic methods which required cutting off a piece of skin for examination under a microscope. The test works by detecting antibodies to the parasite in the blood and results can be determined within 20 minutes.

“The unmet need was a way to cheaply, simply, very conveniently identify people who still may be infected in a population to make a decision as to whether or not further work needed to be done in an area to control, eliminate and hopefully someday globally eradicate onchocerciasis,” Kaslow said.

He explained that knowing who has the disease and where it is prevalent allows for more focused treatment and control of the parasite, and for researchers and health workers to react faster in cases of recurrence.

Moving forward, Kaslow said one of the biggest challenges will be introducing the new tool in countries with underdeveloped health infrastructures, and he emphasized that governments need to support policies that make the delivery of the test sustainable.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

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    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.