Antibiotics to treat blinding trachoma have been delivered to thousands of people living in remote corners of war-torn Yemen for the first time.
More than 444,000 doses of the drug Zithromax®, donated by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, were driven by local health officials through conflict zones and past road blocks to the rural Al Hodeidah and Ibb regions, where trachoma – a painful but preventable eye disease – remains prevalent.
A team of more than 4,000 mainly female volunteers went door to door through 273 villages to ensure the medication was given safely to those who need it. The volunteers chosen were mostly female because they can more easily visit houses to treat women and children, while men are often not admitted because of local customs.
The trained volunteers also distributed wash kits containing soap and hygiene advice donated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help prevent the spread of the disease.
The country’s first mass drug administration to protect people from blinding trachoma was the result of global collaboration between the Yemen Ministry of Health, WHO, CBM, The Fred Hollows Foundation, the International Trachoma Initiative and Sightsavers.
Trachoma, one of the world’s oldest diseases, is an infectious condition spread by flies and human touch. It starts as a bacterial infection: if is left untreated, scar tissue can develop in the eyelid, turning the eyelashes inwards. With every blink, eyelashes scrape the surface of the eye and can cause irreversible blindness. It is one of a group of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases.
An estimated 2.5 million people are at risk of trachoma in Yemen, according to information gathered as part the Sightsavers-led Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP). The country has been ravaged by several years of civil war,while many residents face an inadequate water supply and poor sanitation – conditions that help trachoma to thrive.
Sightsavers Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases Simon Bush said: “Making sure trachoma treatments get to the people who need them in remote and impoverished locations is challenging under any circumstances. But in a war-torn country like Yemen, the obstacles are immense. This is a country where people leave their homes in the morning not knowing whether they will come back safely that night.
“Yet against the odds, communities, the ministry of health and international organisations have come together to ensure nearly half a million people are protected against an excruciating and potentially blinding disease. It is a huge achievement which shows what collaboration and team work can do, even in a country besieged by conflict.
“The lessons learned in Yemen could also have game-changing implications for eliminating trachoma as a public health problem across the world – a goal that a global alliance of partners is on the verge of achieving. We cannot leave communities in areas of conflict and crisis behind.”
Further distributions are planned to the other districts where treatment needs have been identified, but no dates have yet been confirmed. There is a backlog of 2,000 people with trichiasis, the painful advanced stage of the disease, which can lead to blindness. More funding is required to carry out surgery that will ease the pain and potentially save the sight of people with this condition.