This month we welcome our guest blogger Dr Astrid Bonfield CBE from The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.
Imagine if your eyelashes turned inwards and scratched the front of your eye. Every blink causing pain. Every blink causing irreparable scarring. Every blink slowly robbing you of your sight.
This is the reality for millions of people around the world with blinding trachoma.
But it doesn’t have to be.
The Pears Foundation is supporting The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust in its mission to make blinding trachoma history across the Commonwealth.
Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. It is caused by bacteria, and is spread by close contact with an infected person or by eye-seeking flies. It is a disease associated with extreme poverty, most commonly found in rural communities where people have limited access to clean water and healthcare. It is a disease that is four times more likely to affect women than men.
The Trust is working with local partners and Ministries of Health to eliminate blinding trachoma in 12 Commonwealth countries across Africa and the Pacific. By implementing a tried and tested strategy called SAFE, we are: providing sight-saving surgery (S) to correct the position of in-turned eyelashes and prevent further scarring of the eye; distributing antibiotics (A) to millions of people living in at-risk areas to reduce the spread of infection; promoting the importance of facial cleanliness (F) to help prevent transmission from person to person; and supporting environmental improvements (E) to increase access to safe water sources and sanitation.
Supporting this approach is wielding remarkable results, and fast. Since 2014, when our programme started in Africa, 15,960,134 people living in at-risk areas have been treated with antibiotics; 71,314 people have received sight-saving surgery, more than 14,000 community health volunteers have been trained and mobilised to locate people in need of surgery, and more than 200 surgeons have been trained to provide trachoma surgery.
People like Mercy Banda, a mother and subsistence farmer from Kasungu district in Malawi who, thanks to the efforts of our partners, has had her sight saved. Mercy started experiencing discomfort from trachoma two years ago. She was eventually in so much pain that she could no longer harvest soya bean, the main source of income for her family: “I felt chronic sharp pain in both my eyes and could no longer see”, she later told us.
Mercy received treatment when an outreach programme supported by the Trust visited her community and provided her with essential eye surgery, there and then. The operation was a success and Mercy is now free from pain and able to harvest twice as many crops as she could the year before. Her life, and the lives of her children, have been transformed.
Our programme will continue to run for the next 18 months, to help more people like Mercy to keep their sight and live free from pain. In that time, we hope to ensure trachoma is eliminated entirely in Kenya, Malawi, Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and significant steps towards elimination are achieved in Tanzania and Mozambique. We’ve also recently announced our intention to eliminate the disease entirely as a public health programme in Uganda and Zambia and to expand our work in Nigeria, which has the second highest burden of the disease in the world. We are determined to reach more people in more endemic areas in more countries than ever before.
We know that there is still much to be done before we can confine trachoma to the history books. But since 2011, the number of people at risk of losing their sight to trachoma has reduced by 145 million. We are proud to have joined forces with the Pears Foundation to help save millions of people’s sight. We will continue to do all we can to ensure no-one needlessly loses their sight as a result of this ancient disease.
Find out more about our work here.
Image by © Javier Acebal/Sightsavers