Kenya and Tanzania team up to target blinding trachoma

July 12, 2022 – Kenya and Tanzania are one step closer to eliminating blinding trachoma, as the two countries today launched a cross-border mass drug administration exercise.

The joint effort, led by Operation Eyesight in partnership with the ministries of health in both countries, as well as Sightsavers, will distribute antibiotics to more than 1.3 million people with trachoma or at risk of developing the painful bacterial infection. This will provide much-needed treatment to communities living along the Kenya-Tanzania border, across the counties of Kajiado, and Narok on the Kenyan side and the neighbouring districts of Ngorongoro and Longido on Tanzanian side.

Cross border collaboration between the governments of Kenya and Tanzania, in partnership with Operation Eyesight

In Kenya, trachoma is endemic in 12 counties, impacting a combined population of approximately 11 million people. If left untreated, this painful bacterial infection leads to irreversible blindness.

“Trachoma knows no borders, and many pastoralist communities in the area are semi-nomadic. Therefore, collaboration between governments is critical to ensure no patient at risk is unable to receive antibiotics,” explains Alice Mwangi, Operation Eyesight’s Country Director for Kenya. “Antibiotics are an effective and proven way to prevent the spread of trachoma. Together, we are eliminating trachoma from entire villages and communities.”

Alice Mwangi, Kenya’s Country Director for Operation Eyesight, speaks with media about Operation Eyesight’s role in the cross-border initiative to eliminate trachoma from Narok and surrounding areas.

Teams of government health workers and partners like Operation Eyesight will begin efforts in Narok and coordinate work with teams in nearby Tanzania. 

Mwangi says the upcoming Mass Drug Administration (MDA) builds on the success of the previous MDA in Narok County, which provided antibiotics to 460,000 people needing treatment last year. Previous efforts by both governments to distribute antibiotics saw sections of the local communities miss out on treatment as they moved in search of pasture.

“Collaboration with both ministries of health is a historic step towards eliminating trachoma from Kenya for good,” Mwangi adds.

We are partnering with national and county governments with the shared goal of eliminating trachoma from Kenya by 2025.

SAFE from trachoma

Although it can be treated with a simple dose of antibiotics, more than 1.9 million Kenyans and 116 million people across Africa are in immediate need of treatment of blinding trachoma. This bacterial infection causes the eyelashes to turn inwards, causing painful scarring on the cornea, leading to permanent blindness if left untreated.

Because trachoma is spread through flies and personal contact, women and children are most at risk of contracting or re-contracting this blinding condition.

Distributing antibiotics is just one part of the World Health Organization’s ‘SAFE’ strategy for eliminating trachoma: 

  • Surgery to treat trachomatous trichiasis 
  • Antibiotics to clear infection (MDAs) 
  • Facial cleanliness to reduce transmission 
  • Environmental improvements such as wells and latrines

“Eliminating trachoma goes beyond simply treating the disease. It’s also about issues like access to water and sanitation and bringing health education to communities. This plays an integral role in preventing re-transmission of the disease,” explains Mwangi.

“Community eye health activities like these are helping us shift the dial on not only trachoma, but other conditions as well.” 

Neglected Tropical Diseases: diseases of poverty and inequality

Trachoma is one of 20 diseases classified as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) – a group of diseases that have one thing in common: they debilitate and disfigure.

They also affect one billion people living in poverty worldwide.

Operation Eyesight is inviting governments, institutions and organizations globally to join us in signing the Kigali Declaration – a pledge to partner together to ensure that trachoma and other NTDs are eradicated, eliminated or controlled by 2030.  

“Ending Neglected Tropical Diseases at its core is about addressing the root causes of these conditions – poverty and inequality. That’s why Operation Eyesight endorses the Kigali Declaration,” says Kashinath Bhoosnurmath, President and CEO of Operation Eyesight.

“As we move globally towards achieving universal health coverage and achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we see each one of these are also steps towards ending needless vision loss.”

Bhoosnurmath says the Kigali Declaration is not just about eliminating trachoma and other NTDs, but also about taking steps to address inequality, strengthen health systems and leverage the unique strengths of communities.

“We hope that by signing this joint declaration, we can build on our success to date and take more steps forward as a global community.”

Hand hygiene plays an important role in reducing the risk of transmission of trachoma and other infections.

Making strides

Mwangi says the number of active trachoma cases in the region has steadily decreased due to the efforts of Operation Eyesight, governments and other partners. Rates of infection have steadily decreased from 2004 when trachoma infection rates in endemic areas of Kenya were above 30 per cent, to between 12.6 and 19.8 per cent in 2018.

The Kigali Declaration invites us all to a shared commitment to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that target NTDs over the next decade.

“We have made great strides in eliminating trachoma from entire regions,” adds Mwangi. “But more work needs to be done in Africa in particular.”

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