David M. Granger


AUBURN -- An Auburn University professor is among several experts slated to participate in a Birmingham workshop that will train South American scientists to use a new method to detect the parasite that causes onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, one of the world's leading infectious causes of blindness.

The workshop at the University of Alabama-Birmingham July 25-29 was organized by Ed Cupp, a professor of medical and veterinary entomology at AU who has spent 18 years researching river blindness. In addition to Cupp, other key participants will be Thomas Unnasch, a professor of medicine with UAB's division of geographic medicine, and Richard Collins, an adjunct professor of entomology at the University of Arizona.

"I actually put together the program in my capacity as a member of the program coordinating committee of the Onchocerciasis Elimination Program in the Americas," Cupp said. "I contacted Dr. Unnasch regarding his participation and he agreed not only to participate, but to have UAB host the conference."

Eighteen scientists from six countries -- Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela -- are slated to attend the conference. These scientists will be trained in a new detection technique that looks directly at the source of the disease's transmission and gives a real-time estimation of the level of transmission occurring in an area, allowing scientists to determine when an area is free of parasites and when people in a river blindness-infected area may be taken off preventive medicines.

According to latest estimates from the World Health Organization, 17.7 million people -- most in West Africa and Central and South America -- are infected with river blindness, including 1.2 million who have been rendered either blind or severely visually impaired by the disease.

River blindness in caused by a parasitic worm that can grow to up to 3-feet long inside the human host. The worm is transmitted from one host to another by black flies endemic to the infected areas.

A pioneer in river blindness research, Cupp and his research group were the first to colonize and raise in mass the black flies that transmit the disease. As a team leader in Liberia and Guatemala, Cupp's group showed that treatment of infected humans with the drug ivermectin prevented the parasite's transmission for long periods, a discovery that led to the development of a multinational consortium for the prevention of river blindness.

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CONTACT: Cupp, 334-844-5010.