How collaboration can eliminate trachoma by 2030

Jason J Mulikita Photography | Sightsavers
Caroline Harper_Sightsavers
by Caroline Harper
29 January 2021
The world day for Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) celebrates the hard-earned progress made in the fight against NTDs – a set of 20 conditions that have devastating health, social and economic consequences – and calls on the global community to protect the 1.7 billion people still at risk.

Caroline Harper is the CEO of Sightsavers, an organisation working with governments and partners to treat, prevent and eliminate NTDs. As part of Accelerate, a programme Virgin Unite is proud to support, Sightsavers assists the ministries of health in several African countries to eliminate trachoma, an NTD which has existed since the Ice Age.

Below, Caroline writes about how governments, donors, partners, health workers and thousands of volunteers collaborate to ensure treatment for trachoma reaches the people who need it.

Jason J Mulikita Photography | Sightsavers
Jason J Mulikita Photography | Sightsavers

What is trachoma and how is it treated?

Trachoma, which is spread by flies, is the world’s number one infectious cause of blindness. It starts off as a bacterial infection and, if untreated, it can cause scarring to the eyelid, pulling the eyelashes inward. This means that with every blink, the eyelashes scrape against the eye – a painful action that can lead to irreversible blindness. Around 137 million people worldwide are at risk of losing their sight because of the disease.

There are several methods to prevent, eliminate and manage trachoma as a public health problem, including the mass drug administration of antibiotics - outlined below – as well as surgery for individuals with advanced stages of the disease, and education for whole populations about the importance of hand and face washing, and hygienic living conditions.

During mass drug administration, local volunteers treat every person living in a defined geographical area regardless of whether they are infected. Treating all eligible people regularly ensures that those who are infected are treated, and those who are not infected are protected from future infection.

But providing mass drug administration is complex. The journey of the treatment to the communities that need it – often situated in remote areas – requires the collaboration of many local, national and international groups made up of ministries of health, the global health community, non-governmental organisations and volunteers.  

How does trachoma treatment get to the communities that need it?

The journey of trachoma treatment starts with donations from a variety of generous supporters like Virgin Unite, as well as from pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer supplying the antibiotics to treat trachoma for free.

Expert coordination is then needed to get the antibiotics shipped from different pharmaceutical companies around the globe to trachoma-endemic countries. In this journey, the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) has the important job of making sure the right number of antibiotics get to the right places.

Yet once the shipment arrives to the country there is still a long way to go. The communities that need treatment are often situated in remote areas where flooding can damage the road and wash away bridges, or security concerns hamper the delivery of essential health services. This is where, together with the government, partners and communities, we find solutions to deliver even in the most difficult circumstances, including those requiring people to carry the antibiotics by foot.  

Jason J Mulikita Photography | Sightsavers
Jason J Mulikita Photography | Sightsavers

In the final step of the journey, health workers give the correct dose of antibiotics to every member of a community. And with that, the hard work of hundreds of people – from donors, ministries of health, logistics and data experts to drivers, health practitioners, and community leaders – comes together in one invaluable dose of medicine which will potentially protect a person’s sight. As part of this international collaboration, Sightsavers has supported 164 million trachoma treatments since 2001. We are proud to do this work and invite you to look at the journey of the treatment to Zimbabwe on our website.

Is the end of neglected tropical diseases as a public health problem in sight?

This is a pivotal time for neglected tropical diseases. This week, on 28th January, the World Health Organization launched its road map for NTDs 2021-2030. This ambitious document sets global targets for the prevention, control, elimination and eradication of 20 neglected tropical diseases and disease groups. These targets include reducing by 90% the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs and eliminating at least one NTD in 100 countries by 2030. We are confident that with this roadmap and the tireless work and commitment of governments, organisations and communities we will reach these goals.

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Sightsavers' approach to ending trachoma is one of the Audacious Project's Big Ideas. The Audacious Project was brought to life by a wonderful group of partners including; TED, Virgin Unite, Skoll, ELMA , Scott Cook & Signe Ostby and many more. We are incredibly proud to be one of the key partners to have made this incredible project possible, which to date has catalysed over $2 billion for big, bold solutions to the world’s most urgent challenges.