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  • Author: Mary D Nettleman, MD, MS; Chief Editor: Mark R Wallace, MD, FACP, FIDSA  more...
Updated: Nov 05, 2015


Onchocerciasis is an infection caused by the nematode Onchocerca volvulus. Humans acquire onchocerciasis through the bite of Simulium blackflies.[1, 2, 3] Because the fly develops and breeds in flowing water, onchocerciasis is commonly found along rivers and is sometimes referred to as river blindness. 

See the image below.

Simulium fly (black fly). Simulium fly (black fly).

In the human host, the adult nematodes live in subcutaneous nodules and produce microfilariae, which are found throughout the body but preferentially reside in the skin and eye. Repeated exposures to infected flies increase the number of adult worms and microfilariae in the host. Chronic cutaneous onchocerciasis (onchodermatitis) causes pruritus, a papular rash, scarring, and lichenification. Over time, affected skin may begin to sag, leading to terms such as "hanging groin." Patchy depigmentation on the legs leads to a condition known as leopard skin. The term sowda is used to describe severe pruritus with darkening of the skin, often confined to one limb. Chronic ocular onchocerciasis may lead to sclerosing keratitis and iridocyclitis, and finally to blindness.

Onchocerciasis is endemic in Africa, Yemen, and in small foci in Central America and South America. The burden of the disease has been reduced by prevention efforts, including control of the fly vector and periodic ivermectin therapy in at-risk individuals. More recently, attention has been focused on Wolbachia organisms, which are endosymbiotic bacteria carried by adult worms and microfilariae. Treatment of Wolbachia infection has been shown to disrupt microfilariae production by the adult female nematode.



See the image below.

Simplified life cycle of Onchocerciasis volvulus.
Simplified life cycle of Onchocerciasis volvulus.



United States

Onchocerciasis is not acquired in the United States. Occasional cases are found in immigrants or travelers from endemic areas.[4, 5] However, symptomatic onchocerciasis usually requires heavy infestations and repeated exposure to the vector fly. Short-term travelers are at little or no risk of the disease. Pruritus, dermatitis, and eosinophilia may occur in travelers who stay longer than 3 months in endemic areas of Africa. Symptoms may occur months to years after leaving the endemic area.


Currently, onchocerciasis is endemic to 30 African countries, Yemen, and in localized foci of 6 Central and South America countries. Globally, at least 18 million individuals have onchocerciasis, 99% of whom reside in Africa.[6, 7] The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 750,000 people are blind or have reduced vision as a result of the disease.

Since 1975, the WHO, international foundations, nongovernmental organizations, and governments have worked cooperatively to reduce the burden of onchocerciasis.[8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16] Initial efforts focused on insecticide sprays and habitat control to reduce the numbers of black fly vectors. With the introduction of effective treatment, the program became focused on periodic treatment of at-risk persons.

Since 1988, ivermectin has been provided free of charge by Merck through the Mectizan Donation Program. By 2002, most affected countries had introduced population-based programs to supply ivermectin at least annually to at-risk individuals. The drug temporarily reduces the microfilarial burden, resulting in reduced morbidity and a reduced number of flies becoming infected when they bite humans. Reports suggest that this has been highly effective in the Americas, where transmission has been interrupted entirely in several areas and ocular disease has been eliminated in most foci. In Africa, morbidity and transmission have been reduced but not eliminated. This may be due, at least in part, to migration of infected people into new areas, as well as the challenges inherent in educating and motivating large numbers of people.[17]

Despite the challenges they face, control programs have had a significant impact. In Africa alone, an estimated 600,000 cases of blindness had been prevented by 2002 and 18 million children were living in risk-free areas. In 2007, 69 million doses of ivermectin were supplied through the Mectizan Donation Program to reduce the burden of onchocerciasis.


Onchocerciasis is the second-leading infectious cause of blindness in the world.[18]

Skin disease and subcutaneous nodules can be intensely pruritic.[19]

Long-term onchodermatitis may cause scarring, depigmentation, loss of skin elasticity, and disfigurement.

Although not directly fatal, blindness and skin disease caused by onchocerciasis affect the hosts’ ability to assimilate into their societies, perform daily tasks, and care for themselves.[20]

Affected persons often have a low body mass.

Blindness alone has been estimated to reduce life expectancy by 4-10 years.

In the West African savanna, up to 10% of villagers may be blind from the disease.


Onchocerciasis does not have a racial predilection. For an unclear reason, the symptoms caused by O volvulus infection appear to differ from region to region. For example, onchodermatitis is more common in forested areas, while blindness is more common in savanna areas. Some evidence has suggested that genetic variation in the host may explain part of this geographic specificity.[21]


Onchocerciasis does not have a sexual predilection.


Onchocerciasis does not have an age predilection. Children born to mothers with onchocerciasis may be immunotolerant to O volvulus infection, potentially leading to a higher microfilarial burden. Transplacental transmission of microfilariae may occur.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Mary D Nettleman, MD, MS MACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medicine, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Mary D Nettleman, MD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, Association of Professors of Medicine, Central Society for Clinical and Translational Research, Infectious Diseases Society of America, Society of General Internal Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Apoorv Kalra, MD Assistant Professor of Medicine, Michigan State University

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

John W King, MD Professor of Medicine, Chief, Section of Infectious Diseases, Director, Viral Therapeutics Clinics for Hepatitis, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center; Consultant in Infectious Diseases, Overton Brooks Veterans Affairs Medical Center

John W King, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American College of Physicians, American Federation for Medical Research, Association of Subspecialty Professors, American Society for Microbiology, Infectious Diseases Society of America, Sigma Xi

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Mark R Wallace, MD, FACP, FIDSA Clinical Professor of Medicine, Florida State University College of Medicine; Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of Central Florida College of Medicine

Mark R Wallace, MD, FACP, FIDSA is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Medical Association, American Society for Microbiology, Infectious Diseases Society of America, International AIDS Society, Florida Infectious Diseases Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Daniel R Lucey, MD, MPH, MD, MPH 

Daniel R Lucey, MD, MPH, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Simulium fly (black fly).
Histopathology of an Onchocerca volvulus nodule. Image courtesy of the CDC and Dr. Mae Melvin.
Simplified life cycle of Onchocerciasis volvulus.
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