Tackling Bilharzia: Unveiling the Global Fight Against an Ancient Disease

Bilharzia, also known as schistosomiasis or snail fever, is an ancient disease that has plagued humanity for centuries. It is caused by parasitic worms called schistosomes that are transmitted through contaminated water, often found in areas without adequate sanitation or clean water sources. The disease affects millions of people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, but is now gaining global attention in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.

Schistosomiasis is a debilitating disease that can have long-term effects on its victims. The worms lay their eggs in the blood vessels surrounding the bladder and intestines, leading to chronic inflammation and damage to these vital organs. As a result, individuals infected with bilharzia can suffer from symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood in the urine, and anemia. In severe cases, it can even lead to organ failure, cancer, or death.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 240 million people are infected with bilharzia worldwide, with over 90% of these cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. It is classified as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) due to its association with poverty, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and neglect by public health initiatives. However, the global health community is now joining forces to combat this ancient disease and provide hope for millions.

Efforts to tackle bilharzia have gained momentum in recent years. One of the key strategies is mass drug administration (MDA), where entire communities at risk are treated with praziquantel, the gold standard drug for bilharzia treatment. MDA campaigns have been successful in reducing the prevalence and intensity of infection in many countries, including Egypt and Brazil.

In Rwanda, the Ministry of Health launched an ambitious plan in 2008 to eliminate bilharzia as a public health problem by 2023. The government’s approach goes beyond MDA and includes wider public health interventions, such as improving access to clean water and sanitation facilities, promoting hygiene education, and implementing snail control strategies. This comprehensive approach has shown promising results, with a significant reduction in bilharzia prevalence in several districts across the country.

Furthermore, global partnerships and research efforts are shedding new light on the disease. Organisations like the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) and the Global Schistosomiasis Alliance (GSA) are working to increase funding, awareness, and coordination to combat bilharzia. These initiatives are providing much-needed support to countries heavily burdened by the disease, strengthening health systems, training healthcare workers, and improving surveillance and monitoring.

Moreover, technology and innovation are playing a key role in the fight against bilharzia. Researchers are developing new diagnostic tools, such as novel urine and blood tests, to detect infections quickly and accurately. This is crucial for identifying individuals in need of treatment and assessing the effectiveness of control measures. Additionally, efforts are underway to develop a vaccine to prevent schistosomiasis, which could be a game-changer in the fight against this ancient disease.

While progress is being made, significant challenges remain. The continued poverty, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and limited healthcare infrastructure in many endemic areas pose obstacles to effective control and elimination. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted existing bilharzia control programs, drawing attention away from neglected tropical diseases. As a result, there is an urgent need for increased funding, political commitment, and partnerships to sustain the fight against bilharzia.

Tackling bilharzia is an essential part of the global health agenda. By investing in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, we can alleviate the suffering caused by this ancient disease and pave the way for a healthier future. The global fight against bilharzia is a testament to our collective responsibility to leave no one behind in the quest for better health and well-being for all.

About the author

Kwame Anane