Across Africa, millions of people are at risk of contracting neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a group of infections that can have debilitating impacts on individuals, their families, and entire communities.
Yet these diseases can often be treated and prevented with medication.
To ensure the medication reaches the people who need it, Sightsavers uses a network of hundreds of thousands of community volunteers, sometimes known as community-directed distributors (CDDs). These local people are trained to provide the correct dosage of medication to their community to protect them from NTDs. They also gather data and help to identify people who have other related conditions and refer them for further treatment.
As members of the community, volunteers are vital in the fight against NTDs. They have often seen or experienced first-hand the devastating impact these diseases can have. They also have invaluable insight into their community’s traditions and dynamics, helping us to reach people who need our help the most.
Often, two volunteers will work together to help keep people in a small area or village safe and protected from these diseases by going house to house to provide treatment or by supporting mass drug administration. They will also travel long distances to remote villages to ensure no one is left behind.
This community-focused approach also means communities themselves are at the centre of efforts to combat NTDs, ensuring a long-term and sustainable solution.
Female volunteers are vital to our work as they can reach women who may have been previously excluded from treatment, due to traditions or religious beliefs. Community volunteer Hawau Aliyu explains: “As a man there is a limit to where you can go to get into people’s houses, but there isn’t a limit for me. I’m able to go into people’s houses and raise awareness about the diseases and the treatments.”
NTDs can devastate entire communities, but the greatest burden is often on women. Diseases such as trachoma, for example, are more prevalent in children and, as women are usually the primary caregivers, they tend to be more exposed. Despite this, many women like Hawau who are uniquely placed within their communities to lead efforts to combat diseases like trachoma, choose to be on the front line of defence against these diseases.
Volunteers are also trained to raise awareness of disease prevention. For example, by encouraging people to wash their hands and faces regularly, communities can become less vulnerable to catching and spreading disease.
Community volunteers often carry a dose pole, a simple and light device used to measure people’s height. The clear markings on the pole make it easy to calculate and record the correct dose for each patient, depending on how tall they are.
Volunteers also distribute treatment to communities through mass drug administration. These can take place a couple times a year and involve giving out treatment to protect an entire region where one or more tropical disease is prevalent. To ensure they have reached all members of a household, volunteers record the treatments distributed in logbooks, and in some places, such as Egypt, they place a mark with chalk on the outside of the house.
Community volunteers are the backbone of the work we do. The progress we have made and still need to make in the fight against NTDs would not be possible without this vast network of hardworking and dedicated individuals.