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Sightsavers Reports

How facewashing helps Neema to prevent trachoma

April 2014
Neema from Tanzania.

When you’re a child, washing your face can seem a bit overrated. Especially as it’s often accompanied by an impatient parent swabbing at you with a scratchy flannel. And you’re only going to get grubby again anyway, so does it really matter?

We’re pretty lucky in the UK – any illness or disease-causing germs we pick up from skipping the odd face or hand wash can usually be taken care of with a trip to the GP for antibiotics. But in some developing countries, especially where antibiotics aren’t immediately available, being able to keep clean is much more important. Unwashed hands and faces can allow diseases such as trachoma to spread rapidly, infecting whole communities – causing discomfort that can lead to scarring, that can turn to intense pain and, in some cases, eventually blindness.

In countries where water is both valuable and scarce, washing faces and hands sometimes isn’t that high on the priority list, but when people learn how vital it is to keeping disease from spreading it can make all the difference.

A close-up of a child washing their hands under a water tap.

The importance of hygiene in Tanzania

Neema knows better than most children how important it is to wash her hands and face – she and her family were visited a few years ago by Pearson Senyagwa, a health worker in Tanzania whose training was supported by Sightsavers. Pearson taught Neema and her family about the importance of facewashing and staying healthy, as part of a strategy known as SAFE, a public health approach endorsed by the World Health Organization, which aims to control the impact and spread of trachoma through a combination of:

  • Surgery (to prevent blindness for people with advanced trachoma)
  • Antibiotics (to treat eye infections)
  • Facial cleanliness (to stop diseases being passed on)
  • Environmental change (access to water and sanitation)

Neema is the oldest of ten children, and is a brilliant big sister. She understands the importance of keeping clean in the village – “to prevent diseases from happening, like malaria and eye infections” – and now makes sure that her sister and eight brothers wash their hands and faces regularly. Every day they also sweep the yard around their house to keep it clean. When she’s not policing the family facewashing schedule, fetching water or helping cook meals for her brothers and sisters, Neema’s at school, where her favourite subject is maths.

A group of children in Tanzania using brooms to sweep outside their homes.

Spreading a message about sanitation

Children such as Neema will play a huge part in bringing about the elimination of trachoma, changing the future of their communities. But there’s still a way to go. Access to basic sanitation in many regions is limited or non-existent. We still need to get antibiotic treatment and surgery to the people who need them, and get the message about facial cleanliness to communities everywhere.

The SAFE strategy, which is part of all the work that Sightsavers does to prevent trachoma, has already taken us closer to the goal of eliminating trachoma and has led to a better quality of life for millions of people. Amazing what starts with washing your face, isn’t it?

A girl washes her hands in a bowl.

Children such as Neema will play a huge part in bringing about the elimination of trachoma

A girl washes her hands in a bowl.

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