It takes a global village to eliminate a disease
Michael Kirumba is Sightsavers’ Deputy Director (East & Southern Africa and Nigeria) for Accelerate, a programme Virgin Unite is proud to support, where Sightsavers assists the ministries of health in several African countries to eliminate trachoma.
Trachoma is the world’s number one infectious cause of blindness, and it mostly affects people living in poor and hard-to-reach areas. 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. Yet trachoma can be prevented and treated with antibiotics. If the disease has progressed to its advanced stages (also known as trichiasis), surgery can stop further damage.
Why do we think we can stop this disease now, when it has been around since the ancient Egyptians? The World Health Organization (WHO) has laid out its aim to eliminate trachoma in all 66 countries where it is endemic by 2030. WHO has reason to be optimistic as we’ve seen great progress and a huge drop in trachoma – by over 90% in less than 20 years. Encouragingly, Ghana and The Gambia have eliminated trachoma in the last three years.
Now, more than ever, it’s clear that by working together the global community can solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. To stop the spread of COVID-19, we’ve seen scientists, government officials, and members of the public rally together, and vaccines developed in record time.
At Sightsavers we have created the Global Village to show just how many people must continue to work together to eliminate trachoma. The people in the piece represent a mere handful of the roles that are needed to finish this vital job.
I play my part by coordinating with stakeholders, which includes governments, partners and NGOs across East and Southern Africa, to ensure that everyone is equipped with the skills, resources and information they need. In other words, I put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. If you explore the Global Village you’ll meet some of the people I collaborate with.
As the Accelerate programme works across many countries, sharing innovation and learning between countries can really help speed up trachoma elimination. For example, collaborators in Zimbabwe have sat together with those from Nigeria to adapt community sensitisation practices that have been successful in Nigeria – a true definition of a global village!
As with COVID-19, communities need to play their part to stop the disease from spreading by adopting cleanliness measures and accepting the treatment for trachoma. Trained health workers like Asefash share accurate information about trachoma in their communities and encourage people to accept the antibiotics that stop transmission.
Before all this, the antibiotics need to be produced, which Caroline, president of the Pfizer Foundation, supports by manufacturing and donating them. Getting those treatments to where they’re needed is another whole journey in itself, with a further set of collaborators.
As a lot of the communities where we work are extremely remote, we work with local partners who know those areas well. They help train case finders selected from communities to identify people needing trichiasis surgery, and they also help train surgeons, like Dr Alfa, to provide this surgery locally, allowing us to reach more people.
For this work to take place it needs the full ownership from each country’s government as well as funding from donors. That’s why we couldn’t have treated trachoma without people like Sarjo, the national eye health coordinator from The Gambia's ministry of health, as well as Birhan in Ethiopia, who represents the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, that finance this work together with Virgin Unite. So as you can see, it really is a global effort!
I’m proud of the work we are doing and the transformative impact it has on communities. I’m proud to be a member of this global village and to play my part in eliminating trachoma.
Find out more about Sightsavers work to eliminate trachoma.