Remembering a pioneer in the fight against river blindness

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: A medical pioneer passed away earlier this month. His name was Renee Leber and he was a French entomologist, who helped free millions of people in Africa from a disease known as river blindness. The disease involves parasitic worms that invade victims ultimately causing them to go blind. Dr. Joel Bremen knew Renee Leber very well. Bremen is a tropical disease expert at the Fogherty International center of the national institutes of health. How did you both first.

Joel Bremen: We met in 1972, when i arrived with my family to live in Bobojulasso, ex-Upper Volta today Burkina Faso. And he was working on river blindness and I was working on smallpox eradication and measles control.

Mullins: Well we've gone a considerable way since that time thanks to your efforts and uh, certainly Renee Leber's efforts and we've come a long way in terms of dealing with those diseases. His primary focus was as you say River blindness. What did he do to nearly eradicate the cases of River Blindness.

Bremen: Well he started out as a very young man by a old looking at where the, the fly, the black had carried the parasitic worm lived, and bred, and bit humans. So he spent many, many years traveling around Africa to finding that. And then just by chance he had a chance to meet someone who had the wherewithal to fight this terrible disease. He also found that a particular type of insecticide could kill the larva that is the early form of the fly in the water where it bred, and actually stop transmission of the disease.

Mullins: And that was his approach as an entomologist. Now you said there was a key figure there who enable him to do what he did to help fight river blindness. The key figure was the former us secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who was at the time in 1972, president of the World Bank. They actually had a meeting in Burkina Faso. They met, he saw photographs of people who had river blindness at that point McNamara said that he will, would give one hundred twenty million dollars for a campaign to fight river blindness. How unusual was it for somebody like Doctor Renee Leber to be able to not only do the scientific research but also secure the funding and then implement this program on the ground.

Bremen: Virtually unheard of. What you've just said is actually what occurred, didn't all occur to in one of famous three-hour meeting but certainly convincing McNamara of that, at a small town, backwater place in a forgotten land and talking about basically forgotten people was exactly what occurred. Leber showed McNamara some of the pictures that you mention, took McNamara and his wife on the plane ride around showing them the villages and the places where they got infected.

Mullins: So, there was a long-term, insecticide spraying strategy that was implemented with this money from the world bank. how successful was it.

Bremen: Resoundingly successful. Um, the organization of the program was masterful there were literally thousands of workers in ultimately these thirty countries of started with seven countries in West Africa and went to eleven. And now there's still thirty countries looking into the most ambitious goal that is completely eliminating it at some time.

Mullins: Well thank you very much, Dr. Joel Bremen, tropical disease expert remembering his friend, Renee Leber, the French entomologist, who helped fight to free millions of people in Africa from a disease known as River Blindness. Thank you very much, Dr. Bremen.

Bremen: You're entirely welcome.

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