Preventing trachoma in Uganda through handwashing: insights from the field

13 October 2017

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To mark Global Handwashing Day, The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust is highlighting the importance of handwashing not only to eliminate trachoma, but also to create lasting hygienic practices which will help protect people in the Commonwealth from a range of infectious diseases. In this article we share the experiences of Leah Wohlgemuth, a Technical Advisor who works on the Trachoma Initiative.

Put some alt text hereTrachoma is the world’s leading form of infectious blindness and is easily transmitted from person to person, usually via dirty hands or faces. Hand and face washing are therefore essential to prevent and eliminate the disease.

Uganda has made significant progress in reducing the burden of trachoma, but it is still prevalent in the country with 10 million Ugandans currently at risk.  To address this, the Trachoma Initiative is working towards eliminating trachoma as a public health issue in Uganda by 2019 by delivering the World Health Organisation’s SAFE strategy encompassing: Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial cleanliness and Environmental improvements.

Over the last two years I have worked in a team dedicated to delivering hygiene behavioural change programmes to help combat trachoma in Uganda, as part of the Trachoma Initiative. We work with communities in 17 districts in the Busoga and Karamoja regions, although reaching people in Karamoja has been particularly challenging: this impoverished, rural area has a high nomadic population, with many people moving regularly across the border to South Sudan and Kenya, making it difficult to locate and engage with them.

To reach all communities in the districts, we work with water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) partners who already work closely with local people. The infrastructure that these organisations are putting in place, such as access to clean water, toilets and hand and face washing stations, helps to encourage healthy behaviour and prevent trachoma.

To encourage good hygiene, we tailor our programmes to the needs of communities and incorporate trachoma messaging into the existing activities and material of partner organisations. For example, bespoke health and hygiene cards that promote handwashing have been developed to reflect the environments and communities in which they are used. They feature different pictures for each region, reflecting the lifestyle and dress in both Busoga and Karamoja. It is hoped people will relate to the images and therefore take the messages on board.

The goal of trachoma elimination is ambitious. But the progress that is happening by the Trachoma Initiative in Uganda demonstrates that trachoma elimination is possible and we are well on our way!

Health cards: Ministry of Health Uganda/John Hopkins Bloombery School of Public Health/Sightsavers

This article was created for Global Handwashing Day for the Global Handwashing Partnership. Read more of Leah’s insights from the field in her blog.

Photo credit: Sightsavers/Karel Prinsloo