Feature

Onchocerciasis and Mectizan

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Onchocerciasis is the world’s second leading cause of blindness. Its more common name is “river blindness.” Black flies, the culprits that transmit it, are common along the tropical waterways of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Central and South America. When a black fly bites a person infected with onchocerciasis, it may ingest worm larvae. These larvae can then be passed on to the next person bitten by that fly.

Eventually, the transmitted larvae develop into adult worms. Over time, an adult female produces millions of young, microscopic worms. They swarm under the skin causing intense itching, discoloration and rashes. If they enter the eyes, they cause inflammation and irritation leading to diminished vision or blindness.

When we arrived in Mali, West Africa, in 1982, we saw many blind people being led by young children. Sometimes this would be done by a child out in front holding one end of a stick with a blind person trailing behind, holding onto the other end. Other times a blind person would place his hand on the shoulder of the child leading him. Every now and then we’d see a chain of three or four blind people, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person just ahead, with a child leading the chain. Sensing a higher incidence of blindness there than what we saw in North America, we began asking questions. That’s when we learned of river blindness.

In 1995 the World Health Organization estimated that 17–18 million people were infected with onchocerciasis. About 270,000 of them were blind, with another 500,000 having severe visual impairment. Approximately 95 percent of these cases were in Africa.

Here’s the extremely frustrating part of the river blindness story. There’s an easy, free cure available. The drug is called ivermectin, and when taken properly, it kills the microscopic worms. Merck, a major producer of this drug in a form marketed as Mectizan, decided in the late 1980s to donate the drug to all who needed it for as long as needed.

Yet even with a free preventive drug available, there are new cases of river blindness every year. Why? Because wars keep the drug inaccessible in some high risk areas. Because poor distribution infrastructure in some countries makes the drug inaccessible to those who need it. And because there are many people who don’t know the drug exists. This heart-wrenching problem can be summarized in one word: access.

Access to the good news about Jesus Christ is also an extremely critical issue. Nothing wrecks me more than knowing there are still people in our world who know nothing about Jesus. While we talk about Christ’s Second Coming in our churches, there are people who haven’t yet heard of His first coming. They don’t know about what happened on the cross and the miracle of His rising from the dead. They don’t understand that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [them] to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). So they languish in their desperate search, struggling to fill the void they feel within. Spiritually blind, they are in an indescribable darkness of the soul.

Giving them access to Christ, the cure they desperately need, is the mission Jesus entrusted to His Church. While this cure cost Jesus His life, He makes it available to all: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

How can those without access to this incredible news call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone declaring this good news to them? And how can they declare this life-transforming news unless they are sent? These penetrating questions come from the heart and pen of the apostle Paul in Romans 10:14–15a.

Here’s a core value of The Christian and Missionary Alliance: Lost people matter to God. He wants them found.

Dr. A. B. Simpson had a driving passion to take the gospel to those who would otherwise not have access to it. That passion lives on in the hearts of many Alliance churches and people today. It pushes us to places in Central and South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, where people who have not heard the gospel are concentrated. Without sacrifice, all-out trust in God and the Spirit’s power, this is an impossible mission.

We have an incredible gift that’s even more valuable than the cure for river blindness. Now it’s up to us to share it widely and joyfully with those who desperately need it!

ALLIANCE CORE VALUE

Lost people matter to God. He wants them found. (Luke 19:10)

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