Tackling river blindness in a country ravaged by Ebola

by Lincoln Gankpala | Sightsavers International
Friday, 22 March 2019 13:49 GMT

Sia Tamba and her children in River Cess region, Liberia, are seen in this undated photo supplied by John Healey/Sightsavers.

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There were lots of people suffering, needing help, but there was also fear. People were slow to trust.

Lincoln Gankpala is health lab technician at the Liberian Ministry of Health. He is currently undergoing technical surveys implemented by Sightsavers.

Five years ago, I heard the news about the Ebola outbreak. I remember where I was – most of us in Liberia do. I was out in a village in the bush examining and treating people for river blindness which is spread by the bite of black flies.

The worst thing is it can make people blind. I remember one village where more than five people had gone blind. It also causes skin irritation and pain, I have seen people scratching skin until they bleed.

When we heard the news about Ebola we stopped everything we were doing – I knew immediately that we had to. No-one could work, even though patients needed the treatment we were giving them.

We were afraid because we knew what Ebola was. Treating people for river blindness means dealing with blood, doing medical tests and injections. People could get infected and we couldn’t take those kinds of risks.

It feels good now, five years later, to be treating people again. Last weekend I was in the River Cess region, four hour-drive on remote roads southwest from the capital Monrovia – which had high river blindness numbers.

There I met Sia Tamba, a mother who had tested positive for river blindness and was worried her children may be infected. She was delighted when eight-year-old son Solmo tested negative. Such stories show treatment is working and children no longer need to suffer as their parents and grandparents did.

I saw many people suffer from Ebola – including my aunt - in Thinker Village near Monrovia where I live.

It was a terrible time. We were constantly scared someone might be sick, and that we couldn’t help them. After the first dangers past, it took time for us to get close to each other again – everyone was afraid.

When my aunty got better we had to replace everything in her house because we were afraid of contamination. We had to burn mattresses, curtains and make sure all was new.

Along with Sightsavers colleagues, during the outbreak I worked with international medical teams, screening for Ebola. Everything had to be cleaned - hospitals, homes, mobile clinics. It was very important that Ebola triage was followed. You had to go through everything time and time again so there was no risk.

Everyone was afraid of that disease when, one year later, we went back to treat river blindness in places like River Cess. We were rebuilding health systems which had been lost, and eye health care was a priority because of an Ebola side effect called uveitis, which causes inflammation of the eye and may affect vision. There were lots of people suffering, needing help, but there was also fear. People were slow to trust.

Patients were afraid of us when we returned to the villages to continue our work after Ebola. We had to conduct community meetings before confidence could be built.

We had to talk about Ebola and the fear of being infected again, and it was good to talk about it. Everyone wanted to be on the safe side.

Then eventually, it was safe to continue work we had started before Ebola.

Now everyone is excited to see us. ‘You are back!’ they all shout. They remember the free examinations and treatments, and if I go to those villages now, I am like a king.

The river blindness treatment programmes in Liberia are organised by Sightsavers in partnership with the Liberian Ministry of Health and funded by the IZUMI foundation.