Dr. Frank Richards Jr, a world-renowned expert on vector-borne parasitic diseases, delivered a powerful Black History Month keynote address at the Brown University School of Public Health on February 21, 2023. His presentation, “River Blindness (onchocerciasis): from Africa to the Americas,” considered the Atlantic slave trade’s potential role in spreading the disease. Richards recounted the arrival of river blindness to the Americas during the early 1500s, alongside his personal history, and his successful efforts with the Carter Center to eliminate the disease from much of Central and South America.

Dr. Frank Richards Jr. presents “The Carter Center’s work to Eliminate Transmission of River Blindness (onchocerciasis) in Africa and the Americas.” Credit: Kenneth Zirkel

“Dr. Richards’ work is groundbreaking and inspiring,” said Interim Dean Ronald Aubert. “His commitment to eliminating vector-borne parasitic diseases has manifestly changed the world, and his efforts have helped to eliminate these diseases from nearly a dozen countries on two continents.” In his opening remarks, Aubert said it was “a thrill” to have Richards share his expertise and experiences with the Brown audience.

During his talk, Richards described river blindness as a relic of the slave trade that arrived in the Americas during the Columbian Exchange, a historical moment that marked the collision of peoples, goods, ideas, and diseases between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

“When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World,” Richards said, “two biologically distinct worlds were brought into contact. The results of this exchange recast the biology of both regions and altered the history of the world.”

“Resistance was an integral part of the story from the very start.”

Dr. Frank Richards Jr.

Richards explained that the Columbian Exchange was a time of both great disruption and brave resistance. “Revolts and escapes broke out as soon as Africans set foot in the Americas.” From 1502 to 1548, eight major uprisings occurred from Columbia to Spanish Florida. “Resistance was an integral part of the story from the very start,” Richards said.

As revolts occurred, many people sought refuge in the most unforgiving and isolated parts of the Americas. This led to the formation of mixed communities comprising Africans, Creoles, and Indigenous peoples in places like the Brazilian jungles and Oaxacan mountains. Richards proposes that African people may have introduced the parasite responsible for river blindness into these areas.

Richards was searching for these communities while leading the Carter Center’s river blindness elimination program. He was able to identify the disease in 13 transmission zones across six Central and South American countries. He then led a mass drug administration program in communities where the parasite was present.

An audience Q & A session followed Dr. Richards’ talk. Credit: Kenneth Zirkel

Eradicating river blindness has become a driving mission for Richards. Since 1996, he and his team have worked across 11 countries, reaching a major milestone in 2022 when they administered 500 million treatments. Thanks to their efforts, nearly 95% of river blindness cases in the Americas have been eliminated. The remaining people who have not received treatment? They are the likely descendants of 16th-century rebels, living so remotely as to be inaccessible to Richards and his team. 

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter founded the Carter Center in 1982, sparked by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering. Richards paid tribute to former President Carter during his address: “Having someone like President Carter working with us was essential for advocacy, publicity, political support, and fundraising. President Carter has been with us from the beginning of the program to where we are today.”

Dr. Richards studied at Williams College and Cornell Medical School, and completed his residency in pediatrics at the University of Southern California. For 23 years, he worked as a CDC epidemiologist before joining The Carter Center, where he served as director of the River Blindness, Lymphatic Filariasis, and Schistosomiasis Programs. Richards also co-directed The Carter Center’s Malaria Program, which distributed over 18 million bednets in Nigeria and Ethiopia. He currently serves as a Senior Advisor to these programs.