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Faculty & Staff Honors

Faculty & Staff Honors

South Florida Professor Appointed Chair of WHO Committee

The University of South Florida College of Public Health’s Dr. Thomas Unnasch, distinguished university health professor, has been appointed chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Onchocerciasis Technical Sub-Committee of the Regional Program Review Group for Neglected Tropical Diseases (RPRG).  Dr. Unnasch is chair of the department of global health and interim chair of the department of environmental and occupational health.

The role of the sub-committee is to review and report to the RPRG on technical issues relating to the elimination of river blindness in Africa.

[Photo: Dr.Thomas Unnasch (Photo by Rocky Jalil)]

Onchocerciasis, commonly known as river blindness, is an eye and skin disease spread by the filarial parasite Onchocerca volvulus, a type of worm that migrates below the skin and the eyes. The disease is commonly found in inter-tropical zones with about 90 percent of cases occurring in Africa, according to WHO.

“I have been deeply involved in the river blindness elimination effort for most of my career,” Dr. Unnasch said. “Chairing the committee will allow me to use my experience to develop practical effective standard operating procedures that the countries will be able to follow to certify that they have eliminated river blindness.”

[Photo: Dr. Unnasch at an African village in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)]

Dr. Unnasch said the committee’s first task will be to prepare a manual of standard operating procedures to assist country program managers in mapping, verification of interruption of transmission, decisions on when to stop mass drug administration, verification of elimination and post elimination surveillance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, river blindness is categorized as a neglected tropical disease — diseases that cause substantial illness for more than one billion people globally, especially among those living in poverty.

The disease spread by the black fly, Similium damnosum and those infected may experience skin rashes, large nodules under the skin — usually indicating the presence of adult worms living below the skin and, eventually, blindness.

Adults infected by Onchocera volvulus may take ivermectrin to destroy the larvae living in the body; however there is no approved treatment for children under five.

The graphic above shows the cycle of onchocerciasis, or river blindness, one of the major causes of blindness in the world.

“This committee will develop a detailed supplement to the guidelines of the elimination of Onchocerciasis published by WHO in 2015,” he said. “As I was a member of the committee that wrote the original guidelines document, WHO felt that I would be in a good position to help lead the effort to prepare this detailed supplement as well.”

Dr. Unnasch will hold this appointment for two years with the option of being re-appointed for an additional two years.

“I hope that the committee will be successful in developing WHO approved methods for the endemic countries to use to map, monitor and certify river blindness elimination, allowing us to meet the WHO goal of eliminating river blindness from the planet by 2025,” he said.