The Gambia eliminates trachoma, the leading cause of blindness in the world

Written by Emeline Wuilbercq

ADDIS ABABA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Gambia has eliminated trachoma, one of the leading causes of blindness in the world, the government announced, after almost four decades of work to fight the disease.

Trachoma, a bacterial eye infection that damages the eyelids and causes the lashes to turn inward, is one of 20 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that the World Health Organization says disproportionately affect the world’s poorest people.

If the operation is not corrected, it can lead to irreversible loss of vision and blindness.

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“Eliminating disease on this scale is a great achievement,” said Simon Bush, director of NTD at Sightsavers, an international charity working to prevent avoidable blindness, treat and eliminate neglected tropical diseases.

“The news gives hope to other countries that are still working to eradicate the disease and, most importantly, shows the strategy we are using,” he said.

The removal of trachoma as a public health problem in The Gambia, a West African country of about 2.2 million people, comes months after the WHO launched a 2030 global target plan to combat 20 NTDs, including trachoma.

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The number of people at risk for trachoma globally has dropped by more than 90% since the early 2000s, but it still affects people in more than 40 countries, mostly in Africa.

About 1.9 million people are responsible for blindness or vision impairment.

The Gambia has eliminated trachoma after nearly four decades of work involving health workers, NGOs and local communities, the government said in a statement late Tuesday.

“The Gambia’s success in removing trachoma starts with the community,” Sarjo Kanyi, manager of the National Eye Health Program at the ministry and coordinator of the trachoma initiative, said by phone.

A network of eye units has been created across the country with the help of NGOs helping to diagnose and treat people, with thousands of volunteers in the community trained to go door-to-door to find people with the disease.

They also used a WHO-approved strategy that combines surgery, antibiotics and facial hygiene and improved sanitation and water to stop the spread of the infection.

“Removing trachoma as a public health problem means that children in this country will now grow up without having to worry about trachoma,” said Balla Musa Joof, state director of Sightsavers in The Gambia.

“And the government will be able to use the resources previously spent on winning trachoma for other public health problems.”

(Report by Emeline Wuilbercq @emwuilbercq; Edited by Helen Popper and Claire Cozens. Thanks to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a Thomson Reuters charity that covers the lives of people around the world who fight for a free or fair life. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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