During the trip, Rebecca witnessed a historic milestone as Dorcas (pictured above) was given medication to protect her against neglected tropical diseases, marking the one billionth NTD treatment delivered by Sightsavers and its partners.
Rebecca also heard some of the other stories behind the one billion milestone, meeting Dorcas’s grandfather Simon, who has never seen his granddaughter’s face. Here she shares their experiences.
My adopted home for the trip and location of the billionth treatment is Kudaru, a small village in Kaduna State in north-central Nigeria. It’s a rural and farming community, home to a handful of local traders who have started a small marketplace in recent years. The houses in Kudaru are a mix of concrete buildings and traditional wooden structures; the village is surrounded by small hills and is close to a river.
Sightsavers Nigeria Country Director Sunday Isiyaku tells me that life used to be very different in Kudaru. Two decades ago, half of the population carried the river blindness virus – the result of being bitten by parasite-carrying black flies that breed in the nearby river. Most families had direct experience of loved ones becoming permanently blind as a result the disease. It completely devastated the community and limited the potential of the people living there.
But when I arrive in Kudaru, there have been no new cases of river blindness in more than 10 years. The tangible progression in Kudaru, and many other communities like it, is partly thanks to preventative treatment programmes run by Sightsavers and partners alongside the Nigerian government, such as the UNITED programme. These vital programmes protect people from neglected tropical diseases such as river blindness and strengthen local healthcare systems to help countries sustain progress in the long term.
Danladi Ishaku, a local volunteer trained to distribute preventative medication to his community, tells me he is very proud about how far Kudaru has come, and is optimistic about the future generations of the community. Yet a stark reminder of the impact that river blindness has had on previous generations comes as I meet Simon Shauabi.
Simon, a local man now in his seventies, used to work by the local river. Because of river blindness, Simon has now been blind for 30 years.
He holds my hand as we’re introduced to each other, then we sit with his granddaughter, Dorcas, underneath a tree beside his house to get some shade from the sun. The strong bond between the pair is immediately obvious. They are both relaxed and happy together, share in-jokes and anticipate each other’s movements – all traits critical to the help and care that Dorcas provides to her grandfather.
Simon explains that before his vision started to deteriorate, he began to notice intense itching on his legs – the first symptom of what he would later find out to be river blindness. The urge to itch was so strong that it caused him to rip out pieces of his flesh, and he now has significant scarring, a symptom sometimes referred to as ‘leopard skin’.
At that time, treatment programmes had not yet started in the community. Simon says he felt he had no one to turn to and, as a result, his vision gradually deteriorated until he became completely blind. “To be blind when it could have been avoided is a terrible thing,” he says. But he is hopeful and determined about Dorcas’s future and is delighted that she is benefiting from Sightsavers’ preventative treatment programmes.
Dorcas attends the primary school in her village. Every day before school she fetches water from the well and carries out other household chores, such as grinding maize and making breakfast for her grandfather. Just before 8am she puts on her school uniform – a simple white shirt and green skirt – then walks to school with her friends.
Her favourite game is playing and singing in a circle with friends, as they take it in turn to jump in the air – it looks a lot more fun than I’ve made it sound! Watch the video below for a demo.
Children who grow up in Kudaru are taught about neglected tropical diseases in several different ways: by their teachers, by the community volunteers who distribute the treatments, and through posters displayed in public areas and in the local health centre. Perhaps most powerfully, they also learn about neglected tropical diseases by listening to family members, many of whom are a living reminder of the difference that access to treatment programmes can make.
Dorcas tells me that when she grows up she wants to be a doctor so she can help people. Thanks to preventative treatment programmes such as the UNITED programme, Dorcas can have these big aspirations for the future.
Rebecca is Communications Manager for Neglected Tropical Diseases at Sightsavers.