November 3, 2014 |

New test combats major cause of preventable blindness in Africa

A new diagnostic tool from PATH is helping to put the elimination of river blindness within reach.
Woman standing outside next to a table where two health workers complete paperwork.
Local health workers register a community member for a river blindness test during a PATH visit to Morogoro, Tanzania. Photo: PATH.

Editor’s note: PATH has announced the launch of a new diagnostic test for river blindness with manufacturing partner Standard Diagnostics, Inc. This series explores how river blindness affects communities, how the diagnostic test works, and why diagnostic tools are the next wave in global health innovation.

A faster, easy-to-use test to help stamp out a neglected tropical disease

Onchocerciasis, commonly known as river blindness, is caused by a parasitic worm transmitted to humans through the bite of the blackfly. It causes itching, skin disfiguration, and, with chronic exposure, permanent blindness. Globally, an estimated 120 million people are at risk for river blindness, and 18 million are infected. The disease typically affects poor, rural communities who live near streams and rivers. In the past, entire communities fled their homes to avoid contracting the disease, leaving valuable farmland behind and putting their livelihood at risk.

Elimination in reach

Effective and widespread treatment, control, and surveillance, together with the efforts of international and local community leaders, have put the global elimination of river blindness within reach. In the past two years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared two countries in the Americas, Colombia and Ecuador, free of the disease. Achieving the same elimination goals in African countries requires better diagnostic tools. The easy-to-use new rapid test meets this need by supporting fast, effective, and community-wide testing to identify areas where the disease is still active, guide the allocation of limited resources, prevent the disease from reemerging, and confirm elimination. By streamlining testing, it can help expand surveillance activities and accelerate global efforts to stop river blindness for good.

“The proven technology behind this test makes it a powerful and reliable tool in the multinational collaboration to eliminate river blindness,” said David C. Kaslow, vice president for Product Development at PATH. “The availability of a rapid, point-of-care diagnostic is a harbinger of a world free of the suffering caused by this insidious parasite. What’s needed now is quick action to add this simple test to control and elimination programs.”

An appropriate tool

The new onchocerciasis test is specifically tailored for use in the remote, low-resource settings where it is needed most. It offers a breakthrough alternative to the existing test, which involves an often painful procedure to remove a small portion of skin for examination under a microscope. When faced with this prospect, some communities avoid participating in surveillance testing altogether.

Stamping out NTDs

River blindness and other NTDs exact a devastating toll on vulnerable communities in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Through illness, disability, pain, and suffering, they damage health and economic development and perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequity. Recognizing this threat, the WHO has targeted 17 NTDs, including river blindness, for control, elimination, or eradication by 2020. Developing new diagnostics is one key priority.

Gloved hands hold a prototype of the new SD BIOLINE Onchocerciasis IgG4 rapid test.
A health worker holds a final prototype of the new SD BIOLINE Onchocerciasis IgG4 rapid test, manufactured by Standard Diagnostics, Inc. The test has a line at “C” indicating it is working properly, and no line at “T” indicating a negative test result (the test detected no antibodies to river blindness in the blood sample). Photo: PATH/Dunia Faulx.

The new rapid test is a bold first step for PATH in support of this priority. Over the next several years, PATH will leverage our expertise, innovation, and global partnerships to speed the development of a suite of diagnostic tools to help eliminate several other NTDs. Together, these collaborative efforts will reduce suffering, improve health equity, and help communities thrive.

Illustration of the onchocerciasis rapid test, including air openings, test result windown, blood sample port, and buffer port.
The rapid test has been designed for use in low-resource settings by health workers in the field. Illustration: PATH.

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  • Portrait of Tracy Romoser. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
    Tracy Romoser was formerly a communications officer and the blog editor at PATH.