The World Health Organization announced the elimination of trachoma as a public health problem in Mali.
Though not the first country to eliminate trachoma, this milestone is particularly extraordinary due to the scale of the disease. A 1996 survey found trachoma in nearly every region of the country, with nearly 10 million people at risk of going blind, many in remote and difficult-to-reach communities. Additionally, Mali is the first country where Helen Keller Intl has played a major role in fighting this potentially blinding disease.
The leading cause of blindness worldwide
Trachoma is one of the world’s oldest diseases. In fact, it was repeated trachoma infections that eventually caused Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s companion and teacher, to go blind a century ago. While rare in the United States, trachoma still plagues dozens of low-income countries where adequate healthcare can be expensive or hard to access. It falls under the umbrella of neglected tropical diseases, a group of mainly parasitic, viral, or bacterial diseases that can cause a host of disabling conditions such as blindness, undernutrition, and painful swelling and physical deformities.
Repeated trachoma infections beginning in childhood can lead to scarring of the inner eyelid, which can cause the eyelids to turn inward. This advanced stage, called trachomatous trichiasis, causes a person’s eyelashes to scrape their cornea when they blink, causing excruciating pain and eventually leading to irreversible blindness in adults.
“I was forced to stop teaching and devote myself to administrative activities because of my trichiasis. But since my operation on both eyes, I have resumed my favorite role of teaching.’’
– 57-year old Famaka Tounkara
Fortunately, there are antibiotic treatments for active infections, and surgery to prevent blindness in advanced cases, offering hope and saved sight.
“I’ve seen many people spend their whole lives with [trachoma]. I underwent the operation without any conviction but today I work in my field like everyone else. I have no words to express my feelings.’’
– 53-year-old Dougouni Konate, who lost hope when she could no longer see
A milestone two decades in the making
With the support of Helen Keller Intl, The Carter Center, and Sightsavers, and instrumental funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The Mali Ministry of Health has overcome significant challenges to achieve this accomplishment, including vast terrain, high disease prevalence, political instability, and conflict.
Helen Keller was instrumental in helping Mali become one of the first countries to use a community-directed approach to drug distribution. Today, this model is used in multiple countries working to eliminate trachoma and other neglected tropical diseases.
It is partnership that made this milestone possible, explains Benoit Dembele, Regional Technical Advisor, who has had the privilege of marking Helen Keller’s progress over the years. Benoit first served as a project manager for trachoma in Mali and later for our broader neglected tropical disease work there before assuming his current role on the Africa regional team.
“It would not have been possible alone. Putting tools in the hands of community health workers empowered them to educate and treat their neighbors, reaching even the country’s most remote communities,” said Benoit Dembele. “Eliminating trachoma as a public health problem in a country that was once so endemic is an incredible milestone. It means a better quality of life for millions of people and families, giving them the opportunity to discover their true potential.”
The path to eliminate neglected tropical diseases
Despite this incredible milestone, there is still much work to be done. More than 1 billion people globally suffer from at least one neglected tropical disease. Without treatment, these diseases can affect people’s abilities to live comfortably and prosperously. Luckily, with the right support at the right time, many of these diseases are preventable or treatable. Helen Keller prioritizes prevention and treatment of five neglected tropical diseases in Africa: trachoma, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis, and soil-transmitted helminths.
“Through [our work in Mali], Helen Keller Intl has developed expertise in delivering services to remote and insecure communities through training community healthcare workers and supervising from afar,” explains Benoit. “This is expertise we can leverage in other partner countries, to continue the fight against neglected tropical diseases and ensuring good health for children and family members around the world.”
We’re proud of the incredible progress we’ve made and look forward to celebrating additional milestones in the near future as countries continue to make strides against neglected tropical diseases.
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