World Water Week 2018: How water is vital for fighting trachoma

29 August 2018

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To mark World Water Week, we’re looking at the crucial role water plays in helping to eliminate this painful, blinding disease.

In communities where water is scarce, hygiene and sanitation are often sidelined because precious supplies are reserved for drinking or farming. Poor hygiene can lead to more people getting bacterial infections such as trachoma, a devastating but preventable eye disease that if left untreated, can lead to irreversible blindness.

This is why for The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust’s Trachoma Initiative, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) activities are a top priority for prevention and post-operative care.

As part of the Initiative’s work in Tanzania, Fatuma Athumani received surgery for trichiasis, the most advanced, blinding stage of trachoma, where the eyelashes scratch and damage the surface of the eye. She learned the hard way how important face-washing is for healing.

After surgery her eyes were very swollen and painful. At her one-day check-up, the programme’s district eye care co-ordinator, Kasian Lukanga, was concerned that she had not been looking after her eyes as instructed. He taught her to apply ointment and dressing and wash her face thoroughly with soap – a simple but effective resolution.

A simple intervention like this can make a big difference, highlighting the importance of the water and sanitation. Kasian said: “I’m not worried about Fatuma. If she takes care of her eyes, I am sure after two days the swelling will go down.”

Fatuma’s story highlights just how important face washing is for treating trachoma – but it also plays a key role in preventing people from getting infected in the first place.

Trachoma spreads easily from person to person, so hand and face washing, and general sanitation, can easily prevent contagion. The Trust’s Trachoma Initiative is supporting a variety of projects that encourage communities to adopt good hygiene practices for this reason.

In Uganda, Initiative partners installed 4,000 hand and face washing stations next to toilets in schools, and introduced health clubs in more than 40 schools to raise awareness of the importance of hygiene.

In Malawi, it trained more than 1,400 health workers and community volunteers to raise awareness and provide guidance on trachoma prevention.

In Kenya, it launched a ‘Super Schools of Five’ project organised by Unilever and Lifebuoy, which taught children about hand and face washing using superhero characters featured in comic books, songs and other materials.

In Tanzania, it supported the introduction of trachoma prevention messages into the school curriculum, run by international health charity Simavi.

This project sought to improve hygienic behaviours from an early age. One of its champions, assistant head teacher Victor Kidasi, said the programme had made a real difference to the children of Masinyeti Primary School in Tanzania where he works.

A woman washes her face using water from a bottle suspended on sticks.

Victor explained that tippytaps (hands-free washing systems) had been assembled, the number of latrines increased from five to 16, and a weekly health club was introduced to promote hygienic behaviour in the long-term. He said: “We help pupils, because some of them come to school without washing their faces. We ensure the availability of clean water and soap and assist them in washing their faces.”

Perhaps most importantly, Victor said the children took the messages back home. Through parent days and other activities, they shared their knowledge with the wider community, which has led to tippytaps being introduced into homes, among other improvements. The younger generation are not only influencing their elders but becoming change makers in their community – showcasing the importance of prioritising water to fight trachoma.

Photos © Julia Gunther/Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust