Nobel-Winners Campbell, Omura, and Tu Gave Powerful Gifts to Global Health

Last week, IntraHealth International applauded along with the rest of the world as the scientists who nearly eradicated river blindness—a parasitic disease transmitted by black flies and the world's second leading infectious cause of blindness—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura developed Avermectin, the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. They have also proven effective against several other parasitic diseases.

River blindness, more formally known as onchocerciasis, is a horrible disease. The symptoms begin a few years after a person becomes infected: they can include skin depigmentation, elephantiasis of the genitals, visual impairment, blindness, and itching so intense that sufferers have been known to use fire-heated machetes to quell it.

Another scientist, Tu Youyou, also shared the prize for her discovery of Artemisinin, a malaria drug that has reduced the number of malaria deaths around the world.

“These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually,” the Nobel Committee said in a statement. “The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.”

The World Health Organization includes both Avermectin and Artemisinin in its list of essential medicines. In 1987, Merck began distributing Ivermectin (a derivative of Avermectin) at no cost because, as the New York Times reports, “those who needed it the most could not afford it.”

“Avermectin virtually eliminated river blindness in the Gambie and Faleme River Valley in the southeast of Senegal, where it was once a terrible and common affliction,” says Babacar Gueye, IntraHealth’s country representative and chief of party in Senegal. “Now the region has been opened up to farming, thanks to more people in Senegal having access to this medicine and the health workers who can provide it.”

Drs. Campbell, Omura, and Tu: We thank you. And we’re proud to partner with Merck and other companies that recognize that everyone, everywhere should have access to the health care they need to thrive.