Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has announced a $7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in support of research aimed at eliminating river blindness and elephantiasis in Liberia.
The grant will enable a team of researchers led by Gary Weil to resume a project in Lofa County — one of the first regions in the country to be affected by the Ebola outbreak — that was suspended in March 2014. As part of the renewed effort, researchers will evaluate whether twice-yearly mass treatment programs are more effective and less costly in the long run than a once-a-year program. Researchers also will study whether different doses and combinations of existing drugs can more quickly and effectively cure infections than do current treatment regimens. Since 2010, the Gates Foundation has awarded $20 million in support of Weil and his team’s efforts to develop and evaluate new treatments for river blindness, elephantiasis, and intestinal worm infections in the West African country as well as other parts of Africa and Asia where the diseases are common.
River blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, afflicts some 37 million people in more than thirty countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The illness is spread by black flies that breed in fast-flowing rivers. Elephantiasis, or lymphatic filariasis, is a mosquito-borne illness that can lead to severe enlargement and deformities of the legs and genitals.
"While our Liberian colleagues were not infected with Ebola, the disease sickened and killed some of their extended family members and friends," said Weil, an infectious disease specialist who also helped organize an effort to send gloves, gowns, masks, goggles, and no-touch thermometers to the country. "People told us that Ebola was worse than civil war in Liberia. They didn’t know where to go or where to hide to escape the epidemic."