Doctor Spends His Life Searching For The World’s Leading Cause Of Preventable Blindness
You’d be hard-pressed to locate anybody in the world who is more dedicated to eliminating trachoma than Dr. Wondu Alemayehu. This researcher, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has spent his whole life studying the disease, which is the leading cause of infectious blindness.
Trachoma is a neglected tropical disease (NTD). It begins as a bacterial infection, and if it’s not treated quickly enough, it might line the inside of someone’s eyelid with rough scars and force the eyelashes to turn inward.
Alemayehu’s work started in 1986 when he used to be a senior resident in the ophthalmology department at Addis Ababa University. A brain specialist asked him to study a group which seemed to be plagued by blindness.
Trachoma doesn’t only cause blindness. As Alemayehu explained, humans blink over 19,000 times a day in a 24-hour period. When eyelashes turn inward due to a trachoma infection, they scratch the eyeball and cause pain every time the person blinks.
Aware of all the suffering caused by trachoma is totally avoidable has made global elimination of this NTD Alemayehu’s lifelong vision.
However, it is the fact that trachoma is a mother-and-child issue which has kept him moving forward.
While surgery is necessary to correct the distorted eyelid and prevent blindness, it’s far from the only treatment. Antibiotic distribution has reached approximately 60 million doses in the past years.
Alemayehu has experienced this progress firsthand.
In 2001, the International Trachoma Initiative approached the researcher. The US-based non-profit organization works to eliminate trachoma and had access to an effective antibiotic which adults could take in tablet form, and children as an eye ointment serum.
This was an excellent first step, but because the ointment had to be applied twice a day for six weeks, it wasn’t always appropriately taken.
Alemayehu then worked for several years to implement antibiotic programs in many districts of Ethiopia. The program he directed covered three regions in 2002. It covers almost all of the country today.
Six years ago, a consultant from the Fred Hollows Foundation, a nonprofit which aims to treat and prevent blindness and vision problems globally, asked Alemayehu to conduct a situational analysis of eye health in Ethiopia and recommend programs to be implemented. After exploring the situation, they decided to focus on the total elimination of trachoma.
The Fred Hollows Foundation started working in Ethiopia, focusing first on only one zone in the country. It’s since expanded to cover 18 of the 20 rural zones of Ethiopia and has completed over 100,000 surgeries to correct the blinding complications of trachoma.
The primary challenge is the size of the problem. Trachoma affects millions of people around the globe. Although SAFE (surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness, and environmental improvements) is the best strategy for preventing trachoma, it demands systemic change on a national, if not international, level.
Alemayehu leads a consultant company from his home office, where he researches and implements programs and trains, other people. On a nation-wide level, he works with National Trachoma Taskforce and the National Committee for the Prevention of Blindness, sharing his experiences worldwide while also learning from others.
While there’s still much to be done, Alemayehu said he’s seen change.
Alemayehu points to the government of Ethiopia prioritizing the control of trachoma and clearing the backlog of cataract surgeries as a positive. However, he also notes that the issue requires so much attention that more needs to be done.
Approaching 2020, the year the World Health Organization had wished to see the end of trachoma, Alemayehu is hopeful, even if that goal isn’t met in time.