Acceptance Speech – Rome, 18.11.1992


Ebrahim M. Samba

1992 Balzan Prize for Preventive Medicine

For his leadership in the fight against Onchocerciasis (River Blindness) in West Africa. Through the World Health Organization’s Onchocerciasis Control Programme, which he directed, hundreds of thousands of humans have been protected against the disease and so prevented from becoming blind. Due to its success, this programme has made the repopulation of large fertile areas of land possible, thus having a decisive impact on the socio-economic situation of the participating countries.

Mr. President of the Republic of Italy,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen

On the 17 September 1992 at a meeting in the World Health Organization in Geneva a friend showed me the International Herald Tribune in which the Balzan Foundation announced the recipients of its 1992 Prizes. Among them was Ebrahim Samba of Gambia. That is me but why me? The Balzan Prize winners include the Nobel Foundation , Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Paul Hindemith. These are giants, superhuman beings. I want to be like them but I am definitely not there yet.
Later in the day, I convinced myself that the Prize is really for the Programme we serve and not for the individual.
The River Blindness Programme is an international venture requested by the eleven African Governments and supported by the 4 United Nations Organizations and the donor community. This is the biggest health programmme executed by World Health Organization.
The Programme started in 1974 with the objective of removing River Blindness as a problem of Public Health and Economic Development. This disease affects people in the prime of their working life rendering them weak, infirm and eventually blind. ln some villages in West Africa 90% of the population are infected and half the adults are blind. As the vector breeds in the rivers the people are forced to vacate these fertile areas and settle in the up land fields where the soil cannot sustain adequate agriculture.
Today, after many years of operational difficulties the balance sheet has been rather positive.
30 million people living in the programme area are no longer at risk of catching the disease. This includes over nine million children born since the programme started.
Over 200,000 cases of blindness have been prevented.
500 Africans have been trained in various medical sciences. Over 98% of the Programme staff are Africans.
25 million Hectars of fertile river basins have been liberated from the disease and people are now resettling in these areas. Agricultural production is increasing.
Knowledge gained in West Africa is being used to help control this dreadful disease in other parts of the world.
We have demonstrated that a big and scientifically complex venture can succeed in Africa.
The African Governments contribute in cash and kind, the World Bank organizes the major part of the funding from the donor community and the World Health Organization (WHO) execute the programme.
WHO with the support of the donor community are now helping the African governments to ensure that onchocerciasis, River Blindness, will never again be a problem of Public Health and Development anywhere in the world.
In conclusion, on behalf of all those concerned with the Onchocerciasis Control Programme, may I say thank you most sincerely to the Balzan Foundation.

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