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Anne Sullivan, known around the world as “the miracle worker” for her extraordinary achievements as Helen Keller’s teacher, overcame enormous challenges of her own. Born into poverty in Massachusetts in 1866, Anne lost much of her sight as a result of a bacterial infection called trachoma, which she contracted as a child. An operation at age 15 helped improve her vision, but she remained visually impaired for the rest of her life. 

Today, trachoma has all but disappeared in prosperous countries, yet it remains the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness.

Some 137 million people, the vast majority living in rural Africa, are at risk of contracting the disease. 

Trachoma’s Impact on Livelihoods  

Trachoma most often affects families with limited access to proper sanitation and clean water, and it spreads easily within households through direct contact. Young children are particularly susceptible to infection, with rates as high as 90% in some areas. Women are much more likely to be blinded by trachoma than men, due to their role as primary caregivers for their families. 

If diagnosed early, trachoma can be treated with antibiotics. But the disease progresses slowly, beginning with mild itching and irritation of the eyes and eyelids. Advanced symptoms may not emerge until years later after repeated infections, and the disease often goes untreated in communities where there is limited access to basic healthcare. 

A trachoma patient in Burkina Faso.

Over time, repeated trachoma infections can cause severe scarring on the inside of the eyelid and push the eyelashes inward, a condition called trichiasis. Each time a person blinks, the eyelashes scratch the cornea, causing excruciating pain, and if left untreated, can lead to irreversible blindness. 

Entire communities are affected by trachoma infections — children cannot attend school, and adults lose the ability to earn a living or care for themselves and their families. 

A Path Toward Elimination 

Helen Keller Intl has worked since the 1950s to reduce the anguish and devastating loss of potential due to trachoma in some of the world’s most underserved and marginalized communities. In the 1980s, the research we conducted in Tanzania on the benefits of face-washing helped lead to the development of a multi-faceted public health strategy — endorsed by the World Health Organization — that combines surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness, and improvements in water and sanitation. 

An eyelid surgery for trichiasis takes place in Burkina Faso.

In the past five years, Helen Keller teams have screened millions of children and adults and helped deliver more than 20 million treatments, including those under USAID projects. During that time, Helen Keller has supported close to 24,600 eyelid surgeries for trichiasis. Thanks in large part to our global community of supporters, treatment for trachoma is no longer needed in Burkina Faso, Mali, and in most of Cameroon, Guinea and Niger — a major stride toward elimination of the disease. 

Empowering Women to Strengthen their own Communities 

To prevent the spread of trachoma over the long term, we work closely with local governments and partner organizations to expand access to clean water. We have also introduced health education programs in schools to motivate children and their families to make frequent face washing and other effective hygiene habits a part of their daily routines. 

We build technical capacity at the local level by training community-based health workers to perform sight-saving eyelid surgeries. In areas like Katsina State, in northwestern Nigeria, where women sometimes decline needed surgeries for cultural reasons, we place special emphasis on training female surgeons to increase acceptance and strengthen the ability of women to effect positive change in their communities.

“It is so fulfilling to see…my fellow women happy.”

Maryam Ibrahim, Helen Keller-trained ophthalmic nurse 

Maryam Ibrahim, an ophthalmic nurse in Katsina State who was trained to perform eyelid surgeries with support from Helen Keller, says of the program: “Besides building my capacity, the project gives me such a joyful opportunity to impact lives. It is so fulfilling to see these underserved people — especially my fellow women — happy.” 

Help us continue to transform the lives of millions, giving them the vision to reach their true potential.