The World Health Organization African Programme for Onchocerciasis (River blindness) Control (WHO/APOC) had its 16th session open on Tuesday, 7th December 2010 in Abuja with General T. Y. Danjuma (Rtd) who survived the devastating and blinding disease donating $1 million to the programme’s Trust Fund. General Danjuma also narrated to attendees at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja his personal experience with the disease and how he co-inhabited with relatives who also were victims.
The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan also pledged the country’s support to the control of the disease and called for an extension of the control programme beyond 2015 in order to ensure absolute eradication of the disease.
The general who hails from the northern state of Taraba, one of Nigeria’s 31 states affected by river blindness spoke as special guest, he said he suffered and survived the disease as a young military officer and had since 1996 supported a local NGDO, MITOSATH as its grand patron in the fight against the disease.
“Today, I am happy to note that MITOSATH has expanded to include other health interventions to improve maternal and child health,” General Danjuma said. He urged Nigeria, which has 31 million or one-third of the total number of people at risk of river blindness in Africa, to donate handsomely towards bridging the $66 million funding gap towards the elimination of the disease from Africa, where 30 countries are endemic with some 120 million people at risk.
In his address read by Health Minister Prof. Onyebuchi C. Chukwu, President Jonathan noted that Nigeria had in the past three years contributed annually an average of $5 million (mostly in overhead costs) to the implementation of Community-Directed Treatment with Ivermectin (CDTI). More than 146,000 communities in 15 of 19 APOC participating countries are using the CDTI strategy also known as community-directed intervention (CDI) strategy which was introduced by WHO/APOC in 1997 for the control of river blindness.
Expressing “concern” about APOC’s possible exit in 2015, President Jonathan urged the international community to “encourage APOC to continue as there is no other viable regional body with the experience, institutional memory and exposure to coordinate the control, elimination/eradication and management of onchocerciasis.”
Speaking in a similar vein, Dr Luis Sambo, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said he looked forward to the outcome of the 16th JAF session “as this will allow partners and the executing agency make informed decisions about the way forward for the programme after 2015.”
“Given the laudable achievements of OCP (Onchocerciasis Control Programme in West Africa of 1974-2002) and APOC, we must ensure that eliminating blindness from Africa is a success,” he added.
The JAF session, the first to be hosted by Nigeria coincides with APOC’s 15th anniversary.
The Regional Director paid tribute to the programme’s director Dr Uche Amazigo of Nigeria, for her contributions to the disease control efforts and wished her a happy retirement, being her last JAF session at the helm of APOC.
In her goodwill message to the three-day governing board meeting being held under the theme “Join forces to make river blindness history,” the UNICEF Country Representative Dr Soumi Sakai, noted that her agency’s support to river blindness control in Nigeria which started in 1991 in 10 states, had grown to serve an estimated 15 million living in more than 13,000 communities in the country.
In her address of welcome, Dr Amazigo expressed gratitude to all APOC partners for their support and appealed for continuation of the support adding: “If APOC is allowed to sunset in 2015, the huge health and socio-economic gains over the past 30 years will be lost and blindness may return.”
The opening ceremony featured traditional dances with African music icon, Onyeka Onwenu entertaining guests with her popular numbers “Ekwe and One Love.”