Gambia reaches global health milestone by eliminating devastating eye disease

Apr 23, 2021, 11:09 AM | Article By: Laura Rolley

Trachoma, a painful neglected tropical disease (NTD) that can lead to blindness, has been eliminated as a public health problem in The Gambia.

It is the second country in sub-Saharan Africa to eliminate the devastating condition - which can cause eyelids to turn in and eyelashes to scrape the eyeball. 

The announcement will be made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) next week - two years after the same milestone was reached in Ghana. It followed decades of work from the country’s government officials, health workers, volunteers, and the communities themselves, all supported by a network of partners including international organisations like Sightsavers.

After identifying trachoma as a threat to public health, Sightsavers supported The Gambian government to open a network of eye units across the country to help diagnose and treat people with the disease and reached the whole population. It also trained eye surgeons to operate on people with the advanced form of the disease.

Simon Bush, director of NTDs at Sightsavers, said: “Eliminating a disease on this scale is a massive achievement.  We congratulate all those in The Gambia, such as ministry staff, health workers, volunteers and the communities themselves, who have been part of this success story in global health.”

“The news provides hope for other countries still working towards elimination of the disease and, most importantly, shows the strategy we are using works. 

“Trachoma is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide and can stop children from going to school and adults from working. It affects largely rural and marginalised communities – communities that must not be left behind in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.”

The Gambian Ministry of Health and their partners delivered preventative antibiotic treatments to communities across the country and was one of the first countries to receive donations for these treatments; Zithromax ®, which have been donated free of charge by Pfizer.

They also supported the training of thousands of community health volunteers, who went door to door to find people with trachoma, and were pioneers in using the WHO-endorsed SAFE strategy which combined surgery to stop eyelashes scraping the eye, antibiotics to prevent and treat infection, and facial cleanliness and environmental improvements to stop infection spreading.

Balla Musa Joof, Sightsavers’ country director in The Gambia, said: “To know that elimination can be achieved through hard work, commitment and collaboration is important and acts as an encouragement to other countries to keep going with their own attempts.

“Eliminating trachoma as a public health problem means that children in this country will now grow up not having to worry about trachoma, and the government will be able to use resources previously spent on defeating trachoma on other public health problems.”

The elimination of trachoma in The Gambia comes a few months after the WHO launched its 2021-2030 NTD road map. This pledges to reduce by 90% the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs and eliminate at least one NTD in 100 countries by 2030.

Since 2002, the number of people at risk of trachoma has dropped by 91 per cent, from around 1.5 billion people to 137 million worldwide. But the condition still affects people in more than 40 countries, the vast majority of whom are in Africa.

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