At Sightsavers, we rely on our dedicated teams of health and community workers to help carry out our work to banish blinding trachoma, a painful and debilitating eye disease. We want to show our appreciation to the health workers who helped roll out one of the first waves of surgeries for trachoma under Accelerate, an ambitious programme that aims to fast-track the elimination of the disease across eight African countries.
Meet Dr Tamou Guera, one of only 10 eye surgeons working in northern Benin. He has been doing the job for 15 years and he specialises in cataract and trachoma surgeries. He was inspired to go into the profession after witnessing his grandfather go blind when he was young: “This was painful for me; I decided to study to help people with similar problems,” he says.
An important part of his job is reassuring patients that eye surgeries are safe. “People are afraid,” he says. “People in this area do not consider that it is possible to have surgery in the eye.”
In places where accurate health information is scarce, rumours sometimes circulate that trachoma surgeries involve taking out the eyeball or causing permanent blindness. But the reality is that a straightforward surgery lasting less than 20 minutes can relieve patients of the pain and discomfort of trachoma, and in some cases restore eyesight. Across his career, Dr Guera has saved the sight of between 1,500 and 2,000 people.
Dr Alfa Bio Amadou is another of Benin’s few eye surgeons. “The result is fantastic,” he says about the eye surgeries he performs. “Especially when you give sight to someone in a remote community area where there is no eye heath facility.”
Dr Amadou works in Nikki, a region of Benin where trachomatous trichiasis, the later-stage and more severe form of trachoma, is endemic. Those suffering at this stage of the disease are often forced to give up their livelihoods and social lives to manage the pain and many become reliant on family members for daily support.
So, when patients have their surgery, the successful results are often immediately obvious. Dr Amadou gets to witness this joy first-hand. Gani Dao, a 60-year-old woman from a rural village in Benin, had been extremely anxious at the prospect of surgery, despite having lived with the excruciating pain of trachoma for more than 20 years. It took her daughter’s persistence to convince Gani to take the 45-minute journey on the back of a motorbike to the health centre.
But after surgery her manner totally changed – no longer shy and timid, she broke into a spontaneous song and dance of thanks to the surgeons that saved her sight and promised to spread the word to fellow trachoma sufferers. Patients often sing and dance on bandage removal day, when the dressings are peeled off the eyes and they instantly feel the difference surgery has made.
The vast distances between patients and hospitals is a challenge our teams must overcome. In the more sparsely populated area of northern Benin, treating trachoma means crossing large areas of terrain to reach sufferers where access to healthcare and health information is limited. In some places like the endemic region Karimama, where Amadou has worked, there are no official roads and travel is only possible by motorbike or taxi.
The distance poses problems when it comes to aftercare. Three follow-up appointments are needed for each patient that undergoes surgery, but for those living miles from the nearest health centre, or members of nomadic communities who move around, tracking down patients is challenging.
This is where people like Zakari Abdou Loufaye come in. Zakari is a trachomatous trichiasis tracker in Benin. His work involves carefully inputting information about the patients into an app, called the TT Tracker, which stores the data and alerts doctors when follow-up appointments are due. It also means a patient’s records can be accessed by other medical teams if the patient has relocated since surgery.
The tracker app, developed by Sightsavers, has digitised and modernised the way local health centres record and store medical information about patients. Shifting to this system has made it more reliable than the previous paper-based system and the app is now an essential tool in our fight against trachoma.
Ayioundjona Oussou, the hospital director, is there to oversee everything on surgery days. He’s responsible for bringing people in and out of surgery and assisting the surgeons as they operate. When Sightsavers conducted its first wave of trachoma surgeries in Benin, it was the first time Ayioundjona had witnessed treatments taking place for this debilitating disease at his hospital. “I found it very interesting,” he says. “I went to Sightsavers’ training sessions, so learnt the theory, and now I see it put into practice.”
When more normal healthcare activities resume, he’s excited to welcome more trachoma patients to the hospital for these life-changing surgeries.