International Women’s Day 2018: women at the forefront of eliminating trachoma

8 March 2018


The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust (the Trust) is marking International Women’s Day by celebrating women like Esther Anyango from Uganda who is helping to lead the fight against the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness.

The Trust works in 12 Commonwealth countries to stop the spread of blinding trachoma, which is four times more likely to affect women than men. Trachoma is caused by a bacterial infection and is easily transmitted from person to person, usually by dirty hands or faces, or by eye-seeking flies. In many countries, women are often caregivers to their family and carry out traditional gender responsibilities such as laundry, caring for their children and taking care of sick family members. This exposes women and girls to higher risks of infection. Repeated infection causes scar tissue to develop in the eyelid, turning the eyelashes inwards. With every blink, the eyelashes painfully scrape the surface of the eye, causing irreversible blindness, but a simple operation turns the eyelid back the right way, stops pain and saves the sight of the person.

One women who is helping to fight trachoma is Esther Anyango. Esther is an Ophthalmic Clinical Officer (OCO) who performs surgery on people who have repeated and advanced cases of trachoma, correcting the in-turned eyelashes.

Bishop meets five people treated for trachoma.

Last week Lord Chartres, Trustee of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust met Aidha Baruka, Nkede Sarahab, Nyende Abdul, Zabina Nabiriye and Margaret Kufuko, five trachoma patients whose sight was saved by Esther.

After training to become a nurse in 1999 and working in an eye department, Esther explains why she decided to train further. “I would see people who had lost their sight and I thought I should get fully trained. These are our people – when I see them blind I feel bad, especially when they can be cured.

“One day, an OCO came to our health centre, he was the only OCO in the whole of Busoga and used to travel between (around 10,000 square kilometres). I asked him if there was a chance of becoming an OCO and he put my name forward to be trained by Sightsavers. I got qualified, and it grew from there.

Esther, a surgeon sitting with a young boy and two females.

Esther treating patients at an outreach camp at a district health centre in Busoga.

“In the hospital where I work, there is an eye clinic but no eye unit. It’s a big hospital and we get patients from all four districts, a population of several million, so it’s very busy, but its performance has been the best in the whole of Uganda.

“I’ve been doing surgery since I qualified in 2004, and last year I went with 10 other OCOs for refresher training with the Trust. We used to see a lot of people with trachoma, but now because more surgeons have been trained, we see the numbers reducing. We counsel people who are scared of having an operation and encourage people who have been treated for trachoma through surgery to spread the good news.

“We also hold outreach camps for trachoma trichiasis [repeated infections of trachoma, requiring surgery], which are very important – they are saving many people’s sight.

“Trachoma used to be worse in children. Their eyes had discharge and were full of flies. But we give training about face washing and hygiene, which has helped people to stop the disease spreading.

“I feel proud when I have helped and improved people’s hygiene. I feel good that trachoma can be eliminated.”

Before the Trust’s Trachoma Initiative began in 2014, 10 million Ugandans were at risk of trachoma. Thanks to the efforts of community of partners and professional like Esther who work on the Trachoma Initiative, the Ugandan Ministry of Health now estimates that less than 300,000 people are at risk of catching the disease. As a result the country is on track to have eliminated trachoma as a public health problem by 2019.