A young boy using a stick to lead a blind man.

I just had the opportunity to attend the Carter Center Board of Councilors meeting, to hear updates on some of their longstanding programs.

The motto of the Carter Center, Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope. made me catch my breath. There was a palpable sadness in the room, at Jimmy Carter’s illness and his inability to come to the Center. Many on the Board are close friends of his and have known him for a long time. They all urged us to make sure his legacy lives on.

I was most interested in the River Blindness Elimination Project (I must confess I love/hate parasitology.). River blindness (onchocerciasis) is a parasitic infection that can cause eye disease that often leads to permanent blindness. The parasite is spread by the bites of infected black flies that breed in rapidly flowing rivers. A once or twice-yearly dose of Mectizan can kill the parasite and stop transmission of the disease to others.  Over 21 million people are afflicted with River Blindness and 10 times as many people are at risk, living in places where this illness is endemic.

The Carter Center project started 27 years ago, helping distribute Mectizan and educating people about the disease. Since then, over 500 million doses (!!) of medicine have been distributed. They have been able (along with partners in these countries) to eliminate River Blindness in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala. They continue to work in Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda and Venezuela. The exciting news we heard at the meeting was that within these countries (especially Nigeria), there are several regions that have now been declared cleared of River Blindness, and Mectizan is no longer needed! That means about 22 million people in those areas are no longer at risk of contracting River Blindness. So, bit by bit, with persistence, patience and close cooperation with local agencies, this terrible scourge is going to disappear.

Talk about playing the long game. With time and continued hard work, the impossible is now happening. Amazing!

The Carter Center runs several other similar programs for several other parasitic diseases, including lymphatic filariasis, Guinea worm disease, schistosomiasis, and trachoma. And these are just the health-related programs. They have equally robust long-standing programs focused on peace and human rights.  

I came away from the meeting impressed and optimistic, once again, about the innate goodness of people and the great possibilities that exist if we work together.