Bioethics Blogs

Enlisting mHealth in the Fight Against River Blindness

When it comes to devising new ways to provide state-of-the art medical care to people living in remote areas of the world, smartphones truly are helping scientists get smarter. For example, an NIH-supported team working in Central Africa recently turned an iPhone into a low-cost video microscope capable of quickly testing to see if people infected with a parasitic worm called Loa loa can safely receive a drug intended to protect them from a different, potentially blinding parasitic disease.

As shown in the video above, the iPhone’s camera scans a drop of a person’s blood for the movement of L. loa worms. Customized software then processes the motion to count the worms (see the dark circles) in the blood sample and arrive at an estimate of the body’s total worm load. The higher the worm load, the greater the risk of developing serious side effects from a drug treatment for river blindness, also known as onchocerciasis.

This work represents the latest advance in biomedical research’s long, ongoing battle against river blindness, which affects about 25 million people in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Major progress was made starting in the late 1980s, when the pharmaceutical firm Merck discovered that its drug ivermectin (Mectizan®) kills the parasitic worm that causes river blindness (Onchocerca volvulus)  and then took the bold step of donating an unlimited supply of the drug to needy nations that requested it.

Nearly three decades and a billion pills later, the ivermectin distribution campaign has made a big difference in fighting river blindness.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.