Over 30 Years: The Mectizan® Donation Program

December 1, 2019

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Our commitment: “as much as needed, for as long as needed…"

For centuries, river blindness (onchocerciasis) plagued remote communities in Africa, Latin America and Yemen, and there was no answer to this affliction.

This all began to change in the mid-to-late 1970s, when Dr. William Campbell of MSD Research Laboratories suggested the use of ivermectin (later named Mectizan) for river blindness in humans. Following the breakthrough lab work by Dr. Campbell, another MSD researcher, Dr. Mohammed Aziz, championed the clinical development of Mectizan. Dr. Aziz led the collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) in the early 1980s to design and implement field studies in West Africa that, ultimately, proved the effectiveness of the drug against river blindness.

In 1987, MSD committed to donate Mectizan – as much as needed, for as long as needed – with the goal to help eliminate river blindness.

World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Task Force for Global Health, as well as ministries of health, non-governmental development organizations, academic institutions and local communities in endemic communities.

In order to reach this goal, MSD leaders recognized that many organizations with unique skills would need to work together as a team. To enable this collaboration, MSD established the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP), a ground-breaking public-private partnership. Operating from the Atlanta-based Task Force for Global Health, the MDP coordinates technical and operational activities between MSD, WHO, the World Bank, and a range of public and private stakeholders.

Building on the successful implementation of the river blindness program, in 1998 MSD expanded its commitment to include donating Mectizan for another disease, lymphatic filariasis (LF), also known as elephantiasis, in African countries and Yemen where it co-exists with river blindness. For LF, Mectizan is administered with albendazole, a drug donated by GSK.

In November 2017, in support of new WHO guidelines, MSD announced an expansion of the MDP to reach up to an additional 100 million people per year through 2025 as part of the global effort to eliminate LF.

More than thirty years later, the results of the MDP speak for themselves. Several countries in Africa are making significant progress towards eliminating both diseases. In Latin America, four countries – Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala – have received WHO verification of river blindness elimination. LF has now been eliminated in Togo and Yemen. Both river blindness and LF are on WHO’s list of neglected tropical diseases targeted for elimination globally.

Today, the MDP is the longest-running, disease-specific drug donation program of its kind and has been influential in the development of a number of other drug donation programs. And, the MDP’s community-directed strategy used to distribute Mectizan has enabled add-on health services to be introduced in remote communities where health services are limited. The program reaches more than 300 million people in the affected areas annually, with more than 3.4 billion treatments donated since 1987.

“This pioneering program has changed the face of global health over the past three decades,” said Yao Sodahlon, head of the MDP. “When I visit communities where Mectizan is donated, I can see how the program has helped alleviate suffering and allowed people to live better and healthier lives.”

Mectizan eye chart

What is river blindness?

One of the leading causes of preventable blindness worldwide. Transmitted through the bite of black flies – which live and breed near fast-flowing streams and rivers – and can cause intense itching, permanent skin and eye lesions and, over time, blindness. It has historically been prevalent in remote rural areas of 36 countries (in Africa, Latin America, and in Yemen.)

What is lymphatic filariasis (LF)?

Also known as elephantiasis, LF results in disfiguring swelling in the limbs and genitals. Parasitic infection spread by mosquitoes and damages the human lymphatic system. More than 1.3 billion people are at risk, and 30 percent of those infected live in Africa.

According to Uche Amazigo, former director of the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control, “by engaging the people, the treatment coverage increased significantly.”

People in the communities are an integral part of the distribution process in the more than 146,000 communities where Mectizan has been distributed.

Over 30 years later, the results of this program speak for themselves

more than

Billion cumulative treatments

more than


Through the efforts of a variety of partners, more than 3.4 billion treatments have been donated to more than 146,000 communities in 29 countries in Africa, six countries in Latin America, and in Yemen. River blindness transmission has been interrupted – meaning no new cases have been identified – in four of the six affected countries in Latin America and regions in five African countries. The program reaches more than 300 million people annually.

Today, the MDP is the longest-running, disease-specific drug donation program of its kind. See more information.

Video documentary – “for as long as it’s needed”

Click on each video below to explore the history and impact of the Mectizan Donation Program.

1. About the disease

About the disease

2. Discovering a cure

Mectizan video 2

3. MSD’s pledge

Mectizan video 3

4. Community approach

Mectizan video 4

5. Current statistics

Mectizan video 5