Rene Le Berre, 78

Rene Le Berre, who led successful fight against river blindness, dies

Rene Le Berre helped prevent many people from contracting the vicious but largely preventable condition, which mainly affects the poor.
Rene Le Berre helped prevent many people from contracting the vicious but largely preventable condition, which mainly affects the poor. (International Bank For Reconstruction And Development/the World Bank)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 10:20 AM

Rene Le Berre, 78, a French entomologist who helped save millions of Africans from contracting river blindness, a vicious and preventable condition that mostly affects the poor, died Dec. 6 in l'Aiguillon-sur-Mer on the west coast of France. He had cardiovascular disease complicated by diabetes.

River blindness is a debilitating scourge caused by wormlike parasites that grow as long as 20 inches and live inside the human body, causing a range of problems that include intense itching, disfiguring skin nodules and - when the parasite migrates to the eyes - blindness.

The World Health Organization estimated in the early 1970s that between 20 million and 30 million people, most in tropical parts of Africa and Latin America, had contracted the disease. In some villages, 80 percent of people were affected by the parasite; many were blind.

"It was absolutely wrecking their lives and was a detriment to any hope of improvement socioeconomically," said Frank Richards, who has worked in Africa for decades and directs the river blindness program of the Atlanta-based Carter Center. "In the richest farmland in that part of Africa, you couldn't settle it because everyone would go blind."

River blindness, or onchocerciasis, is spread by the bites of black flies, which carry the parasite from person to person.

Dr. Le Berre spent the 1960s working with colleagues to map thousands of black-fly breeding sites in western Africa. His work showed that spraying insecticide on those sites, usually in fast-moving jungle waters, would kill fly larvae and stop the disease from spreading.

To eradicate the disease, spraying would have to be sustained over a huge part of western Africa for at least 20 years - the approximate life span of the river blindness parasite inside the human body. Such an effort required a considerable financial commitment.

In 1972, Dr. Le Berre hosted a meeting with a man who could deliver such backing: former U.S. secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, who was then president of the World Bank.

When McNamara and his wife visited the country now known as Burkina Faso, Dr. Le Berre took them to a small village clinic. He spoke with them for three hours about the disease that was ravaging West Africa.

"To convince someone like Mr. McNamara wasn't easy when you're a Frenchman in the middle of nowhere," Dr. Le Berre later told a newsletter published by the nonprofit River Blindness Foundation. "But it was a golden opportunity."

He explained the horrors of the parasite and showed photographs of people stricken by the disease and of youngsters leading long lines of blind elders. He also talked about how a World Bank-funded campaign to kill black flies could bolster West Africa's agricultural economy and prevent millions of people from suffering.

Moved by Dr. Le Berre's presentation, McNamara launched a $120 million, seven-country campaign against river blindness.

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