Mission to Eradicate River Blindness from Communities

18 May 2012

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Danjuma being conducted round the magnificent MITOSATH Centre

It began like a dream, but the reality today is that 16 years of perseverance and hard work has reduced the scourge of onchocerciasis (river blindness) in various communities in Nigeria. An erstwhile youth corps member, now Mrs. Francisca Olamiju, founded the Mission to Save the Helpless (MITOSATH) after an encounter with victims of the disease in 1995. Godwin Haruna writes

The compulsory one year National Youth Service took Mrs. Francisca Olamiju to Taraba State to render service to her nation in 1995. Nothing prepared her for what she saw on her way to her place of primary assignment in the course of the national service. While seated in a commercial vehicle, the young Francisca saw people on the road, who remained rooted to their spots despite oncoming vehicles. Surprised at their action, she asked why the people were unwilling to give way for moving vehicles on the highway and she was told that they could not see as they had become victims of onchocerciasis (river blindness), which was ravaging the area.

Overwhelmed with pity, the young youth corps member resolved from that moment that she was going to fight the disease to submission and save the people from the scourge. That was how Mission to Save the Helpless (MITOSATH), a non-governmental development organisation (NGDO), was born. Olamiju said the organisation is to compliment government’s efforts of improving the quality of life and socially desirable role of advocacy for the less privileged that abound in our modern society. After her youth service, she stayed put in Taraba State to pursue her dreams of fighting river blindness and other allied diseases prevalent in the area to submission.

Like all dreams, a benefactor was needed to actualise her own dream. Then enter Lt. General Theophilus Y. Danjuma, a former Defence Minister and Chief of Army Staff, whose support obviously expanded the scope of intervention beyond imagination. At the inauguration of the magnificent MITOSATH Centre christened ‘TY Danjuma Building’ in Jos last week, which was solely funded by his firm, Danjuma told the audience that he was motivated to support the initiative because of the teaching of Jesus Christ on charity. He counselled other citizens that one does not have to be rich to give since giving comes in various ways like volunteering to assist indigent citizens.

He said when the young youth corps member first came to him for assistance to fight the disease; he was skeptical about her motives. Nonetheless, after some persuasions, he obliged with the donation of a four-wheel drive

with which to distribute drugs to the hard-to-reach hinterlands. Then over the years, the general said he was encouraged to do more because he could see the impact of the intervention in the communities.

In his address to journalists after inaugurating the MITOSATH Centre, Danjuma said: “I know first-hand what river blindness is. I am from Taraba State and I have had a personal experience with this disease and live with relatives and friends who are victims of this scourge. Onchocerciasis – it’s a long, rather difficult name, isn’t it? And the disease is long and difficult too. The worms fester and grow and snake their way through our bodies, and they make life miserable. The itching is horrible and of course, the blindness is something no one deserves. So we now call it river blindness, which is easier to say, but still makes people shiver at the thought.

“I am a businessman, not a scientist or medical doctor or policy maker. But it will take all of us working together to eliminate this disease once and for all from our continent. I am aware of what has already been done. There are two programmes that really stand out – first the Onchocerciasis Control Programme (OCP), for West Africa and then the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), which is administered by the World Health Organisation and have the World Bank as its fiscal agent.”

He said APOC developed a completely new strategy that went to the source, which are the communities affected. He added that this worked hand-in-hand with control programmes coordinated by the government and supported by NGDOs such as MITOSATH, which he is a part. He added that the researchers also tried to find out what worked best at the local level and not just the easy-to-reach in cities and towns, but in the remotest parts of the countries. According to him, they refined something called community-directed treatment with ivermectin, which he added means: “Ask the people what works, ask the people who should do what, ask the people how to follow up. It sounds so simple and as you know, it works!”

Amid paucity of funding, Danjuma acknowledged the unprecedented and generous donation from a private company, Merck & Co Inc. He said with the donation of ivermectin to treat and prevent river blindness, the communities themselves were involved in the distribution. He added: “I have joined in the effort to ensure that this programme does not close prematurely because we haven’t finish the job yet and in the 21st century, it is heartbreaking to watch lives continually destroyed by river blindness.”

He said there are other reasons why support for APOC partnership should be maintained and even increased and this is because there has been an independent external evaluation of APOC which have shown conclusively that the community-directed intervention strategy can help reach communities with other health programmes. “Such visible achievements of health programmes are few. Data has been shared that shows that the infection is now rare in many villages in Taraba State and no new case of blindness due to onchocerciasis. The result is similar in 146,000 communities in 15 African countries. We cannot risk going back, we should never see the horrific sight of a string of blind men and women led by a child,” Danjuma stated.

He said Nigeria has the highest number of Mectizan distribution projects of any country in Africa, benefitting 32 states. He added that in 2010, more than 26m people received Mectizan, and many received other health commodities through the efforts of this partnership. Early this year, Danjuma upped the ante with a one million dollars donation to the World Bank to fight this scourge in Africa. He was honoured with an award at the Washington headquarters of the bank for that generosity for a cause.

Earlier in a presentation during the inauguration of the MITOSATH Centre in Jos, Olamiju said with increased globalization and complexity due to the contradictions of modern development, the less fortunate of the society had become marginalized and even ignored. The executive director of MITOSATH said formal social institutions for life improvement have become personalised and increasingly urbanised and nominal in concern for the rural dwellers.

“MITOSATH was borne out of the vision of a young Nigeria Youth Service Corps member who saw the devastating effects of river blindness and decided to contribute in order to make a difference for the better. From managing one local government for control of river blindness in Taraba State, the organisation is now supporting three states (Taraba, Ondo and Lagos) in mapping, baseline surveys, control and elimination of cluster of diseases referred to as Neglected Tropical Diseases. These Neglected Tropical Diseases include onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, soil transmitted helminthes, trachoma among others,” she added.

According to her, the Centre has shown an unparallel commitment, dedication and resilience in the pursuit of its goals and objectives with an initial focus in the prevention and control of river blindness in Nigeria, particularly in Taraba State. However, over the years, the scope of its focus, work, activities and involvement from where it started from river blindness control in one state to the prevention and control of other neglected tropical diseases to more than three states across the country.

“The imperative of these increased involvements and activities married with our experience over the past 15 years, means that we need to be more pragmatic and proactive with our vision, ideas, approaches and implementation of our programmes while remaining relevant to deal with the changing realities of our work and time. The demand of this imperative is the need for empowerment, capacity building/development, research/development and increased partnerships and networks.

“Consequently, the design, construction and commissioning of the T. Y. Danjuma Building which is the first in our centre, is our foundational response to meeting the dynamics of challenges and changes arising from our experience in the prevention and control of NTDs in Nigeria in view of prevailing realities and the peculiarities of our environment. Our renewed commitment is to take ownership of these imperatives to act responsively, using the facility significantly as a resource base and a catalyst to trudge and forge on in this quest of uplifting the dignity of the human life,” Olamiju stated. She acknowledged the tremendous efforts of Danjuma, Grand Patron of MITOSATH, whose firm built the Centre and the Plateau State government, which donated the land for the building.

In his address at the inauguration of the MITOSATH Centre, Plateau State Governor, Chief Jonah Jang, who was represented by the Secretary to the State Government, Prof. Shedrack G. Best, commended General Danjuma for his efforts in reaching the less privileged. The governor promised continued assistance to MITOSATH in the efforts to eradicate river blindness and the NTDs. He promised to urgently do something about the impassable road that leads to the Centre.

Jang commended the initiative of the organisation in establishing its headquarters in Jos despite the negative perceptions being held about Jos in recent time. He enjoined other wealthy members of the society to emulate the example of Danjuma, who has whole-heartedly supported MITOSATH from the onset.

The secretary of the Board, Compt. Nahum Angyu, also graced the occasion, which was witnessed by representatives of the Federal Ministry of Health, various NGOs and the clergy, Vice Chancellor, University of Jos, Prof. H. B. Mafuyai and wife, among other dignitaries. The MITOSATH Centre (T. Y. Danjuma Building) is located in Dadin-Kowa area of Jos.

Tags: Featured, Life, Life and Style, River Blindness

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