Small West African nation follows Ghana in successfully eradicating the painful eye disease, which still affects people in more than 40 countries
By Emeline Wuilbercq
ADDIS ABABA, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gambia has eliminated trachoma, one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide, the government has announced, after almost four decades of work to counter the disease.
Trachoma, a bacterial eye infection that damages the eyelids and causes the eyelashes to turn inwards, is one of 20 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that the World Health Organization says disproportionately affect the world's poorest people.
If not corrected with surgery, it can lead to irreversible vision loss and blindness.
"Eliminating a disease on this scale is a massive achievement," said Simon Bush, director of NTDs at Sightsavers, an international charity working to prevent avoidable blindness, treat and eliminate neglected tropical diseases.
"The news provides hope for other countries still working towards elimination of the disease and, most importantly, shows the strategy we are using works," he said.
The elimination of trachoma as a public health problem in Gambia, a West African nation of some 2.2 million people, comes months after the WHO launched a roadmap of global targets to tackle 20 NTDs including trachoma by 2030.
The number of people at risk from trachoma globally has dropped by more than 90% since the early 2000s, but it still affects people in more than 40 countries, mostly in Africa.
It is responsible for the blindness or visual impairment of about 1.9 million people.
Gambia eliminated trachoma after almost four decades of work involving health workers, NGOs and local communities, the government said in its announcement late on Tuesday.
"Gambia's success in trachoma elimination starts from the community," Sarjo Kanyi, manager of the ministry's National Eye Health Programme and coordinator of the trachoma initiative, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
A network of eye units was created across the country with the help of NGOs to help diagnose and treat people, with thousands of community health volunteers trained to go door-to-door to find people with the disease.
They also used a strategy endorsed by the WHO that combined surgery, antibiotics and facial hygiene practices and sanitation and water improvements to stop infection spreading. "Eliminating trachoma as a public health problem means that children in this country will now grow up not having to worry about trachoma," said Balla Musa Joof, Sightsavers' country director in Gambia.
"And the government will be able to use resources previously spent on defeating trachoma on other public health problems."
(Reporting by Emeline Wuilbercq @emwuilbercq; Editing by Helen Popper and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.