In parts of Africa where the disease is prevalent, they call it the “Lion’s Stare.” River blindness, or onchocerciasis, is a pervasive disease, spread by the black fly.
The disease causes a loss of vision that results in a fixed, lifeless glare. Kalamazoo College graduate Bruce Benton led an international program to find a cure. He’s the author of Riverblindness: Taming the Lion’s Stare (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).
“The book presents a complete story of the discovery of the disease and the effort to control it in Africa, going back as early as the late 1800s,” Benton says. “The effort to control it started in 1974 with an ambitious program that covered 11 countries in West Africa, where the disease is thought to be the worst in the world. It was launched by Robert McNamara, who was president of the World Bank at the time.”
Benton earned his degree at Kalamazoo College in history and economics. It was during his study abroad experience that he became interested in other cultures. He earned graduate degrees at Johns Hopkins University and University of Michigan, then began a 40-year career focused on development assistance for Africa. He was responsible for commodity negotiations and the international development banks in the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury throughout the 1970s and advised Congress on foreign assistance before joining the World Bank in 1982 after working in the Peace Corps in West Africa. In his role at the World Bank, Benton mobilized financing for the program to end river blindness, raising more than $400 million.
"The idea was to not only to control the disease, but then look at ways of promoting development in those areas where the disease was the worst and begin to increase agricultural production once the disease was brought under control,” Benton says.(P) Because the black fly larvae hatch along riverbanks, where land is the richest for farming, people living there would move away to avoid the disease. But that meant abandoning these areas where they might make a better living. Extreme poverty had become a side effect of the disease, and conversely, eliminating it raised the living standard of these communities.
The World Bank created unique partnerships involving UN agencies, donors, NGOs, a major pharmaceutical company, universities, African governments, and the stricken communities themselves to effectively control the disease. Benton says a means to control it is available as an oral medication, administered each year.
“There were more than 100 partners involved, and they all pulled in the same direction,” Benton says. “We had a clear objective that everyone agreed upon and a strategy for achieving that objective that was clear and consistent over time.”
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