16 October 2014 was a very exciting day for the people of Lukwa in Kasungu District in Malawi.
They witnessed history in the making: the launch of the Malawi Trachoma Elimination Programme by The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust and the Malawi Ministry of Health.
Sir John Major, Chairman of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, said: “I am delighted that the Trust is working with the government of Malawi to eliminate blinding trachoma across the country. Through this initiative the Trust seeks to make real and enduring difference to people who are needlessly blind, in the name of Her Majesty the Queen.”
The event included traditional dances; speeches by high profile representatives; testimony from a trachoma patient and exhibitions by some of the implementing partners for the programme, including Sightsavers, WaterAid and CBM.
Approximately 9.5 million of the 14 million people in Malawi are at risk of contracting trachoma. 33,000 people already have advanced stages of the disease that can lead to permanent blindness. The programme is therefore a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make trachoma history in Malawi. About £7.3 million has been provided to the programme by the Trust, enough for full elimination. The programme is being coordinated by Sightsavers and implemented by ICTC (the International Coalition for Trachoma Elimination) members: Sightsavers, CBM, AMREF Health Africa, WaterAid and Blantyre Institute for Community Ophthalmology.
The programme will target 17 trachoma-endemic districts, working with the government, and will support the existing National Trachoma Control Programme towards elimination. The aim is full trachoma elimination in Malawi by early 2019.
What does trachoma elimination mean for Malawians?
Elimination of blinding trachoma has many benefits. It would help break the cycle of poverty by preserving the ability of individuals to work and provide for their families. Children’s school attendance would also be increased as they would no longer be required to drop out of school due to poor vision and discomfort or to work as guides for trachoma infected adults. Overall it would contribute tremendously to improved quality of life for the people of Malawi.
The day of the launch
In her remarks the Minister of Health, Dr. Jean Kalirani, (the guest of honour representing the president) eloquently pledged the Malawi government’s commitment to supporting trachoma elimination in Malawi. She reminded everyone that the chief challenge to eliminating trachoma in Malawi has been inadequate financial resources and personnel. She excitedly confessed that the trachoma elimination programme is the first to openly say, “We have enough money for implementation and be assured we will not knock at your door to ask for additional resources.” She challenged her ministry to take up leadership and coordination of the programme through the National Blindness Prevention Committee and the national trachoma taskforce to provide leadership direction and monitor progress.
Dr Jean Kalirani, the Malawian Minister of Health, said: “Let us remember what we are committing to: No more blinding trachoma in Malawi by 2018.”
Speaking at the event, the traditional authority Senior Chief Lukwa, was very excited to have the event launched in his area. He assured all present that he will be a champion of the trachoma elimination programme not only in his area but in the whole country. As if speaking directly to the 1000-plus community members present to witness the event, he re-emphasised the importance of face washing and keeping clean environments as key elements to winning the battle against trachoma in Malawi.
The fabulous Gule Wankulu (traditional mask dancers) spiced up the occasion with their energetic dance moves. This served to remind the onlookers that community members are important partners towards efforts for trachoma elimination.
The launch of the Trachoma Elimination Programme is the beginning of the end of the blinding disease in Malawi. All that is required is continuation of the commitment already shown by all partners from the government, the Trust, ICTC partners and the community.
Let me end by echoing a statement by the CEO of Sightsavers Dr. Caroline Harper in her address at the launch: “Together we can make trachoma history in Malawi.”
Read more: Malawi Trachoma Elimination Programme.
By Virginia Kamowa, Global Advocacy Coordinator at Sightsavers