By Anna Massey, Head of Strategic Government Partnerships at Sightsavers
When it comes to tackling the largest infectious cause of blindness in the world – trachoma – it is widely agreed that the SAFE strategy is key in moving towards elimination. Recommended by the World Health organization (WHO), the strategy aims to reduce the burden of the disease, especially in Africa where it is highest, by addressing: Surgery (lid surgery to correct trichiasis); Antibiotics (Zithromax® donated by Pfizer to treat and prevent active infection); Facial cleanliness (to prevent disease transmission); and Environmental change (such as the construction and use of latrines to control flies, and provision of accessible water to allow face washing).
Excitingly, the situation will now change dramatically in six Sub-Saharan countries over the coming five years with the UK government announcing an investment of £39 million to help support the elimination of trachoma in countries like Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania through the SAFE strategy. Being implemented by a consortium of International Coalition for Trachoma Control (ICTC) members and managed by NGO Sightsavers, programme work will begin on the ground in Autumn.
The burden of the disease has already largely been surveyed in these countries, through the UK government supported Global Trachoma Mapping Programme (GTMP). For example Ethiopia, where the GTMP has supported the Ministry of Health to examine 430,000 people across seven regions, has approximately 30 per cent of the known global trachoma burden, so this support is much needed.
For countries such as Chad this crucial investment will see a rapid expansion of the nascent trachoma programmes and will hopefully be a catalyst for further support in fighting trachoma and stopping people needlessly living in pain and ultimately losing their sight.
Whilst this project will see 165,000 trichiasis surgeries performed and almost 10 million people treated with antibiotics, in addition to increasing access to water and instigating behavioural changes to reduce transmission of the disease, there is further good news for the broader NTD community. The implementation of the SAFE strategy and particularly the F&E components will also yield broader benefits including potential reductions in the burden of other infectious diseases, including cholera, typhoid and other NTDs (schistosomiasis, STH, Guinea worm), plus other diarrheal illnesses.
Through the programme, links will be made with other NTD projects in these countries to ensure a holistic push to make a dent in the significant and debilitating burden placed on these poor communities by NTDs such as trachoma. The provision of infrastructure around this planned scale-up of SAFE activities will support control of trachoma and provide a platform for strengthening other NTDs and health interventions.
The ICTC programme Advisory Committee will be providing technical and quality assurance guidance for the programme, which will include support from a series of structured working groups on technical programmatic practices.
Sightsavers itself will be drawing on its expertise of working with partners and Ministries of Health in African nations through other trachoma-related projects such as GTMP, The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust Trachoma Initiative and a DFID-funded UNITED programme to tackle NTDs in Nigeria to ensure efficiencies, collaborations and ultimately success!