Background: The Onchocerciasis Control Program (OCP) in West Africa has been closed down at the end of 2002. All subsequent control will be transferred to the participating countries and will almost entirely be based on periodic mass treatment with ivermectin. This makes the question whether elimination of infection or eradication of onchocerciasis can be achieved using this strategy of critical importance. This study was undertaken to explore this issue. Methods: An empirical approach was adopted in which a comprehensive analysis was undertaken of available data on the impact of more than a decade of ivermectin treatment on onchocerciasis infection and transmission. Relevant entomological and epidemiological data from 14 river basins in the OCP and one basin in Cameroon were reviewed. Areas were distinguished by frequency of treatment (6-monthly or annually), endemicity level and additional control measures such as vector control. Assessment of results were in terms of epidemiological and entomological parameters, and as a measure of inputs, therapeutic and geographical coverage rates were used. Results: In all of the river basins studied, ivermectin treatment sharply reduced prevalence and intensity of infection. Significant transmission, however, is still ongoing in some basins after 10-12 years of ivermectin treatment. In other basins, transmission may have been interrupted, but this needs to be confirmed by in-depth evaluations. In one mesoendemic basin, where 20 rounds of four-monthly treatment reduced prevalence of infection to levels as low as 2-3%, there was significant recrudescence of infection within a few years after interruption of treatment. Conclusions: Ivermectin treatment has been very successful in eliminating onchocerciasis as a public health problem. However, the results presented in this paper make it almost certain that repeated ivermectin mass treatment will not lead to the elimination of transmission of onchocerciasis from West Africa. Data on 6-monthly treatments are not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions.
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