In 2018, I took to the TED stage. I remember feeling excitement and anticipation as I waited in the wings.
I had been made up professionally, and my hair sprayed to within an inch of its life. There was a tense atmosphere with several speakers walking up and down practising their talks under their breath, and a lot of technicians juggling with sound and lights. As I stood on the famous red carpet, I felt a tremendous responsibility. I knew the significance and potential impact of what I had to say, and how it could change the lives of so many people living in pain and at risk of going blind.
I spoke to the TED audience – both those in the room and those who I knew would watch online in the future – about the importance and reality of eliminating trachoma, an excruciating eye disease that has plagued humanity for thousands of years, destroying lives and trapping people in poverty. I also stood on that stage for another purpose, to ask others to step up and make history by helping to put an end to this disease.
I was particularly touched by the fact that Chris Anderson, the head of TED, came on stage at the end and talked about how his father had been an ophthalmologist working in low-income countries and how he had treated trachoma back in the day.
This TED talk happened because Sightsavers had been chosen to receive funding from the Audacious Project. Not long before this, we had learned the exciting news (directly from Richard Branson!) that a number of Audacious donors were inspired to join us (The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, The ELMA Foundation as well as Virgin Unite). Following my TED talk, other donors joined with the Audacious group (including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK government). More are joining all the time. The impact of this support has been, to put it simply, immense. Together we launched the Accelerate programme and have subsequently changed lives and communities around the world.
Since 2018, our Accelerate donors and partners have enabled us to protect 14 million people from the risk of trachoma in 14 countries. And every single one of those people has a unique story to tell – like Safia, a grandmother who regained her independence and ability to work thanks to eyelid surgery, and Adou, who was able to return to farming after treatment. He summed up the change in his life by saying simply: “The fear is gone”.
Through this programme, Sightsavers has helped to deliver more than 48 million preventative treatments for other neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that we fight, managed more than 88,000 advanced trachoma cases, mostly with surgery, trained more than 151,000 health workers, and helped 14 countries to take strides towards their trachoma elimination goals. And, as I write this, we await the news on the World Health Organization (WHO) validation of Benin’s elimination of trachoma as a public health problem – this will make Benin the first country supported by the Accelerate programme to achieve this huge milestone!
This progress was only possible due to the support of our Audacious donors. And there are more successes to celebrate. I’m immensely proud that Sightsavers has also supported governments in Ghana, The Gambia and Malawi to eliminate trachoma. And globally, 47 countries have now eliminated at least one NTD.
But with great progress comes great challenges. It can be difficult to reach the people most at risk of trachoma. For example, nomadic populations who travel vast distances and sometimes move across borders; those who cannot travel to health services and the people living in areas experiencing conflict. Integrating data across governmental health sectors can also be hard to achieve. And during COVID-19, NTD services were one of the most heavily impacted of all health interventions, according to a 2020 WHO survey.
In my 2018 talk, I spoke about why the NTD sector is so successful. It’s because we collaborate. And through this collaboration, we’re working to overcome these challenges. Through long-standing partnerships with governments and other local NGOs, we train thousands of health workers and volunteers who travel long distances to ensure no one is left behind and so our services are equitable and inclusive to all.
We integrate systems to ensure that NTD programmes are efficiently coordinated with other disease-control programmes. Thanks to Sightsavers’ adaptation of a WHO risk assessment tool, governments were able to lessen the risk of spreading COVID-19, meaning treatment programmes could restart promptly and safely. And because collaboration is so important, we share these learnings with the sector so that we can all progress together.
Safia and Adou’s stories have stayed with me but it’s important to stress that the impact of eliminating an NTD like trachoma goes way beyond the individual. It means that children can go to school more easily and fulfil their potential. It means that the burden on women and girls (who are almost twice as likely to go blind from this disease than men) is reduced. It also enables adults to work, earn an income, support their families, and in turn, contribute to the economy. But more than 40 countries still count trachoma as a public health problem.
We want to make one of the world’s oldest diseases history. But as a sector, there isn’t enough global funding or donors and governments with the commitment to eliminating them. I want us to build on the successes of the past five years. I want no person to have to experience the pain of trachoma. I want children to learn, adults to earn, and everyone to thrive in a world where we make history by becoming the generation that eliminated trachoma.
Right now, everything is hanging in the balance. We’ve come so far, but there’s a real risk that we don’t have enough funding to continue the fight – and if we don’t do this, much progress could be lost. This is why we must act now. There are ways that all of us can help, but as a priority, we must act together and invest in NTDs.
Caroline Harper is Sightsavers’ global CEO, a role she has held since 2005. In 2015 she received a CBE for services to people with visual impairments. More about Caroline
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