Carroll County Rotary clubs are helping world health organizations battle river blindness, a debilitating disease that has affected hundreds of thousands and devastated farming communities in central Africa.
Local Rotary clubs have donated $25,000 - money that will be matched by Rotary International - to buy Mectizan, a drug that controls onchocerciasis, a parasite disease that leads to rashes, severe itching, skin depigmentation, blindness and death.
Although $25,000 might not sound like much, the money will go a long way: The annual treatment for one patient is 15 cents.
"It means a great deal to the most affected communities who don't have the resources to buy medicines," said Joyce Msuya, health specialist with the World Bank and a Tanzanian national. "Basically, these donations provide care. The benefits are many, including economic productivity. And, it erases the stigma."
In Tanzania, the disease affects more than 600,000 residents. About 400,000 of them are receiving annual medication, and the prescription distribution must continue for long-lasting effects. The disease affects 18 million people worldwide.
Msuya, who leads the battle against river blindness in 13 countries in central Africa, has seen its devastation and the results of treatment. In a meeting with the Westminster Rotary Club on Tuesday, she assured members that their donation will have an immediate effect.
"When we give them the drug, the manifestations of the disease disappear," she said. "People are very grateful. Without the medication, they had no way to relieve their suffering or prevent blindness."
River blindness starts with the bite of the blackfly, which deposits parasitic worms in its victims. The worms cluster in unsightly nodules under the skin, affecting every organ in the body. So fearful are African villagers of contracting the parasite that they often abandon rich farmland along the riverbanks, rather than risk a bite.
When a family member - often a young man who farms along the river -shows signs of the disease, everyone in the village knows. Fearing ridicule for their unsightly appearance, victims are often confined to their homes. Their children often do not attend school and their wives do not take their produce to market, Msuya said.
Health officials say the Rotary donation will benefit many people.
"For $400, you can treat 2,660" annually, said Paul Derstine, director of Interchurch Medical Assistance in New Windsor.
Victims usually take the drug once a year for 15 years. The first dose proves to them how beneficial the medicine is. It almost immediately stops the constant, debilitating itching - so severe that victims scratch themselves with rough tree bark or knives.
Stanley J. Noffsinger, manager of the Emergency Response/Service Ministries in New Windsor, said the project has "such an attainable outcome that will make a difference in the lives of those affected. This medicine gives them dignity; it gives them life."
That area Rotary clubs became involved in a project thousands of miles away is due largely to Don M. Padgett, IMA's pharmaceutical services director. He has traveled frequently to Tanzania to oversee the distribution effort, visiting the remotest areas and training villagers on disease control.
About a year ago, Padgett spoke to Bonds Meadow Rotary in Westminster. The members readily joined the battle.
"People see the presentation and they are really touched," said Vince Campanella, a local member. "A donation can make all the difference."
More than 17 clubs in Maryland are participating. Campanella hopes to make the eradication of river blindness a cause for Rotary International.