Blinking Herself Blind

Reposted with permission from HKI’s Seeds of Sight blog.

At a truck stop in Niger, Shawn Baker encounters a woman who has gone blind from trachoma

Shawn Baker’s final blog post from his travels with NY Times Journalist, Nicholas Kristof.

On Monday afternoon we headed back towards Niamey and spent the night in Dosso, which is in the southwest corner of Niger. We stayed at the relatively new Zigui Hotel – which had promised to be a step above Magama – but we certainly did not move into the lap of luxury. That evening we ended up in the stadium where traditional wrestling matches are organized to take advantage of the outdoor bar and restaurant.

The next morning, Marily, HKI’s Country Director for Niger, Doug Steinberg, HKI’s Deputy Regional Director for West Africa who had just joined us, and Noreen, one of Kristof’s win-a-trippers, and I headed to the center of town. Dosso is a hub of transportation and the center of town serves as a make-shift truck stop. All vehicles going East and South pass through here.

We sat in a small kiosk by the side of the road that serves up omelet baguette sandwiches (the Nigérien version of a McMuffin®) to eat breakfast and observe the morning hustle and bustle.

We saw three blind beggars pass by within 20 minutes, each guided by a sighted child. Noreen took the following photo a woman who appeared to be blind from trichiasis, the end stage of trachoma.

A woman in Dosso, Niger, blind from trichiasis, being led by a sighted child
A woman in Dosso, Niger, blind from trichiasis, being led by a sighted child

Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of preventable blindness in the world.  It is caused by a bacterium prevalent in poor communities that have limited access to adequate sanitation and clean water. If trachoma is left untreated, recurrent scarring of the eyelid causes the eyelashes to turn inward and rake the cornea – so that the sufferer literally blinks him or herself blind.

This woman we saw had the tell-tale sign of in-turned eyelashes. It is extremely painful (imagine the feeling of sand in your eyes that will never go away) and, unfortunately, the blindness cannot be reversed.

The real tragedy is that trachoma is one of the most preventable causes of blindness; this woman did not have to go blind.  And it is women who bear the inordinate burden of this disease. The tragedy of the disease is compounded by the fact that almost every blind adult has to be guided by a child – a child who is pulled out of school and often loses any hope of an education.

Through the leadership of the National Blindness Prevention program and support from partners such as HKI, The Carter Center and the International Trachoma Initiative, with significant funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and USAID, Niger has made great strides in combating trachoma. Although we still have some ways to go, we have come far.

On Wednesday we will visit an area that has been freed from another Neglected Tropical Disease, River Blindness or Onchocerciasis – which used to be one of the other major causes of blindness in parts of West Africa.

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