By Patrick O’Carroll, President & CEO of The Task Force for Global Health
I’ve always loved the Thanksgiving tradition of gratitude. This year as I gathered with family and friends I included thanks for people 8,000 miles away in Kenya, where I recently joined Task Force board members and colleagues to meet community members, health leaders, government officials and partners working to end preventable blindness and intestinal worms.
Here are six partners for whom I gave thanks:
1. Ana Kedienye, a Maasai grandmother who was nearly blind and in constant pain from trachoma before surgery restored her sight.
Ana shared her story with our group so we would understand the importance of this work. Ana’s community of pastoralists lives in Narok County, which lies in the southern part of the Great Rift Valley, bordering Tanzania. Her Maasai community tends cattle and migrates. The dusty, arid conditions, flies and poor sanitation fuel diseases like trachoma, a bacterial eye infection. Once Ana’s eyes were damaged there was little hope for her.
“Nairobi never assisted the problem of my eyes,” she said, referring to the capital city 120 miles away. That distance might as well be thousands of miles for someone without transportation or resources. Instead, a community health volunteer she calls Mr. Tom visited her community to provide trachoma treatment donated by Pfizer.
“He asked me questions about my eyes and then one day he came and picked me up on his motorbike and took me to the clinic to get the operation,” Ana said. “My eyes got opened again.” As she spoke, she lifted her hands as if facing a window and pushing open curtains.
2. Community health volunteers like Mr. Tom travel to the poorest parts of the county distributing the medicine that prevents and treats trachoma, referring people like Ana for surgery, and teaching people how to protect themselves with face washing and other hygiene measures.
A health volunteer named Rose Nanteya described her work going house to house, seeking permission to screen for trachoma.
“They won’t want to be screened; they deny that they may have it,” she said. It’s complicated work to earn people’s trust. She said the tablets have driven down the rates of trachoma but some people are wary about taking the medicine, particularly those who don’t have symptoms.
“In the early years, most people refused. They say four tablets is too much and ‘I am not sick,” Rose said. “We tell them we are trying to prevent trachoma.” Like any good health provider, Rose is patient and she knows how to encourage people to listen to her advice. My colleague Paul Emerson, director of our International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), said “There are hundreds of thousands of community health volunteers, each serving a community to support a system that can get people the resources they deserve.”
3. The medicine is donated by Pfizer through The Task Force ITI program, which manages the distribution to trachoma endemic countries. Since the start of the Kenya trachoma program in 2006, the partnership has donated 22.5 million treatments to Kenya valued at $574 million. Surveys done earlier this year show that five counties in Kenya have achieved the threshold for elimination and will no longer require community drug distributions. Narok County is aiming to achieve that distinction as early as 2023.
4. Nonprofit partners like Operation Eyesight Universal and Sightsavers provide essential complementary services. Operation Eyesight Universal (OEU) built the surgery ward at the Naroosura Health Centre and provides transportation for patients, some of whom come from as far away as 30 miles. Sightsavers trained the surgeons and equipped lead trainers to teach others; they’ve also created communications materials for school clubs where students learn how to prevent and treat trachoma. OEU paid for a bore hole to provide clean water for the community and the government added solar panels to power the pump.
5. Fridah Nemusi Tiren, pictured above is one of the surgeons. On the day of our visit she did several operations. They are quick but require precision. She numbs the eyelid with a local anesthetic and stretches it back to get inside where there is scarring from repeated infections; this scarring has pulled eyelashes inward to scratch the eyeball, causing terrible pain and eventually blindness. She uses a scalpel to clear the damage to the inner eyelid and prevent further damage. More than 2,000 people in Narok County have had the surgery. “When people hear that the doctors of the eyes are coming, they come,” said Alice Mwangi of Operation Eyesight Universal. The training is having an impact beyond Kenya, as surgeons have taught counterparts from countries like Liberia and Botswana.
6. Government leaders at both the county and national levels are personally committed to eliminating trachoma. One senior official, seated in a suit and tie at the head of a conference room table in the government offices, told us he was a “Maasai boy brought up in the village” and he remembered how rampant trachoma was in his childhood. “I have never known where trachoma went but you don’t see anymore big populations with it. Today I’ve got the history as to why,” he said after listening to the team describe the reasons behind that success. Now that transmission rates have dropped to the point where the disease can be eliminated, the program will transition to the government to manage. “When we reach elimination we invite you back to Kenya to celebrate,” our hosts said.
I look forward to that joyous day.
Over the next few months we will publish stories, videos and photos from this visit so you can learn more about these people, our work together, and ways to get involved.
In the meantime, from my family to yours, and from all of us at The Task Force for Global Health, thank you for your support and partnership. Your contributions are improving lives all around the world – from Narok, Kenya, to more than 150 other countries.
Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season.
President & CEO of The Task Force for Global Health