Although it has been speculated for more than a century that the slave trade was responsible for bringing many tropical diseases to the Americas, only recently has convincing evidence shown that lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), schistosomiasis, and onchocerciasis (river blindness) originated in this way. The good news, say a team of tropical disease experts, is that tools now exist to eliminate these diseases, which are a lasting legacy of forced migration from Africa to the Americas.

On the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in England, which officially abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, a commitment to eliminating these three neglected tropical diseases would be a fitting commemoration, say Dr John Lindo (University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica) and colleagues.

"Lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, and onchocerciasis were most likely imported to the Americas through transportation of millions of persons from sub-Saharan Africa to the New World," say the authors. "The presence of competent vectors such as mosquitoes, snails, and black flies allowed transmission and dispersal of the parasites." These debilitating diseases continue to take a heavy toll on the poorest communities in the Americas, most of whom are descendents of slaves.

What is needed to eliminate these diseases -a residual blight of slavery - is "dedication of financial and technical resources in a coordinated effort," say the authors.

CITATION: Lammie PJ, Lindo JF, Secor WE, Vasquez J, Ault SK, et al. (2007) Eliminating Lymphatic Filariasis, Onchocerciasis, and Schistosomiasis from the Americas: Breaking a Historical Legacy of Slavery. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 1(2): e71. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000071
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