Overcoming trachoma


As roosters crowed, Jenala Phiri, 37, woke up to another bad day. She cursed daybreak not because she was lazy, but she had a blinding condition called trachoma. As the sun rose, she felt pain as her inward-turned eyelids scarred the eyeball.

Being a woman and unable to take care of her family haunted her. She felt some worthlessness, says the mother of four.

Such was the drawback that she stopped doing household chores, farming and other income generating activities.

A clinician examines Jenala’s eyes

“To see something higher than me, I would feel pain in my eyes. I was unable to cook and carry out family activities. It was very difficult for me,” she recalls.

Life became tougher year after year until she heard about a trachoma initiative happening in her rural community in Dowa.

Without hesitation, she went and got her eyes examined by a clinician and she was diagnosed with triachiasis in both eyes. This is the severe stage of the disease which potentially causes permanent blindness in patients.

Jenala was then referred to Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe for an eye surgery to ease her pain and correct the eyelids that turned inwards, scrapping the eyeball. She was amazed with the difference.

After the 15-minute procedure, the woman on the brink of blindness could see again—painlessly.

“I was so happy,” she says. “I didn’t know the condition was treatable.  I used to spend much of the time indoors. Now, I can go out, I can cook, fetch water and do any household chores without any problem.”

Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, impairing sights of about 1.9 million people. Nearly 1.2 million are irreversibly blind.

But no one should go blind from a disease that is entirely preventable if people practise basic hygiene, especially washing hands with clean water and soap before wiping the faces.It is caused by bacteria, called Chlamydia Trachomatis, which spreads by flies and human touch.

However, it mainly occurs among the rural poor, who have limited access to clean water and healthcare.

Every year, the second Thursday of October marks the World Sight Day to increase mass awareness of conditions that lead to avoidable loss of vision. This year’s theme was Eye Care Everywhere.

Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, which works in partnership with government, reckons Malawi is on track to achieve global goals to eliminate trachoma.

“When the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust’s Trachoma Initiative began working in Malawi [in 2014], there were over eight million people at risk of losing their sight to the disease. Now, thanks to the incredible efforts of our partners and the commitment of the Ministry of Health, there are none,” says Annike Spiller, the trust’s communications manager.

In 2014, government adopted a five-year national strategic plan on the elimination of trachoma which was adopted in 2014.

According to Spiller, Malawi is on course to become the first country under the Trust’s Trachoma Initiative to end trachoma as a public health problem.

She states: “The initiative has provided over 4 800 sight-saving operations to people with the advanced stage of the disease. It has distributed vital antibiotics to over eight million people, 16 surgeons have been trained to treat people with trachoma, and 12 524 case finders have been trained and mobilised to locate people in need of treatment and direct them to services.”

The trust also rolled out mass awareness initiatives empowering people to adopt hygienic practices in 17 districts hit hard by trachoma.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Joshua Malango says the country is edging closer to being declared trachoma-free.

For this to happen, the ministry has to submit a dossier to the World Health Organisation (WHO)—a process currently underway, according to Malango.

He states: “We are done with the mass drug administration. This means as a country we do not have trachoma as a public health problem, but it is still there as a disease.

“What is remaining now is surveillance which will be done next year and the other year in some districts which finished the mass drug distribution late.” 


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