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SocietyTrachoma: a history for the world but a different story for Ethiopia

Trachoma: a history for the world but a different story for Ethiopia

A woman in her late 30s waits for her turn to enter surgery while terrified and on the cusp of tears. She is nevertheless nervous about having surgery despite knowing that the doctor is an expert in his field.

She lives in an area 30 minutes away from the city of Wolkite, Guraghe zone, where she goes to the local health center for checkups whenever her eyes start to hurt. With no idea what trachoma is, she has been suffering from the disease for the past three years after it showed up around the time she became a widow. Being a single mother of two with deteriorating sight has also played a part in her reluctance to get the treatment she needs.

“I was very scared that my children would face difficulty if I were to get the surgery and stop being active for weeks. I have to provide for my family. The doctors here as well as my children finally encouraged me to get the surgery, and here I am today,” she said, waiting to go into surgery and rid herself of the discomfort. The trachoma, which makes her eyelashes grow inwards, had made it harder for her to properly function.

Trachoma is a disease of the eye caused by infection with the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. A public health problem in 44 countries, it is responsible for the blindness or visual impairment of about 1.9 million people. Blindness from trachoma is irreversible. Based on June 2021 data, 136 million people live in trachoma endemic areas and are at risk of trachoma blindness.

Orbis, a non-profit organization that has been active in Ethiopia for the past 20 years, has been fighting avoidable blindness by taking different measures. The organization opened an extension of the eye care unit at the health center in Wolkite, where it serves as a stalwart in performing cataract surgeries with state-of-the-art equipment.

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The organization follows the elimination strategy, summarized by the acronym “SAFE,” which means Surgery for Advanced Disease, Antibiotics to clear C. trachomatis infection, facial cleanliness, and environmental improvement to reduce transmission.

Tezera Desta, a senior program manager at Orbis, stated how most students in rural areas suffer from undiagnosed eye conditions that could easily be treated by sunglasses but cause a lot of disadvantage to students.

“Students with refractive errors have their problems neglected by teachers, which hinders their school performance. This is why we give training to teachers to scope out students with visual problems, including refractive ones. We then go to schools and provide these students with the necessary glasses,” Tezera said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a goal to eradicate trachoma from the world by 2020. Most countries contributed to the disease’s eradication, but Ethiopia bears 54% of the global trachoma burden.Since the disease is categorized under NTD’s (neglected transmittable diseases), it does not get the recognition it needs to be tackled faster than it has been in the past.

“Even though trachoma is becoming history in the rest of the world, it is still a major concern in Ethiopia. Yes, we’ve made a huge leap in tackling and eliminating trachoma in some zones within the past decade; all thanks to the Ministry of Health, partners, donors, and the community as well,” said Alemayehu … (Dr.), country director for Orbis.

“But we are not there yet to declare our elimination as a nation. There are districts that have achieved the WHO threshold, like here in Guraghe. Out of the eight districts we’re supporting, five have achieved this threshold,” Alemayehu added.

According to the five-year NTD masterplan Ethiopia endorsed to achieve by 2026, 75 of the endemic districts are expected to eliminate trachoma, and by 2030 the country as a whole is expected to reach elimination of the disease in line with WHO’s plan.

Orbis and its partners, in line with this vision, have distributed 44.5 million doses of antibiotics to prevent and treat trachoma. Orbis supported facilities have also carried out nearly 140,500 trachoma surgeries, playing their part in availing sight where it is most needed.

Since prevention is more effective than treatment, Orbis has been carrying out awareness raising programs with a goal of avoiding avoidable causes of blindness. It trains school teachers on basic eye care to prepare students who need visual aid and get glasses fitted to for free.

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