Who are community volunteers?

A woman smiles as she holds a dose pole.

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. But often, these diseases can be easily treated and prevented with medication.

Our community volunteers ensure life-changing treatment reaches the people who need it.

Community volunteers, sometimes known as community-directed distributors (CDDs), are a network of hundreds of thousands of locally selected people 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 on families and communities. They also have invaluable insight into their community’s traditions and dynamics, helping us to reach people who need our help the most.

Over 137,000
community volunteers were trained in 2020
42.1 million
NTD treatments were distributed by Sightsavers in 2020
Over 51,000
community health workers were trained in 2020

Africa has a high burden of NTDs such as trachoma, lymphatic filariasis, river blindness, schistosomiasis, and intestinal worms. These diseases are preventable and treatable, but in areas lacking good sanitation, clean running water and access to medical care, they can spread through communities. And without proper treatment, these infections can cause life-long disabilities, including sight loss.

NTDs also have a financial toll as their debilitating symptoms can mean many people are unable to earn a living to provide for their families. The stigma associated with some of the diseases can also have a devastating impact on individuals and their relatives.

Without community volunteers, Sightsavers’ work to tackle these diseases – by distributing millions of donated treatments to communities in over 30 countries – would not be possible.

Volunteers are nominated within their community, so often they are well-known and trusted in the area. They are also aware of local customs, so, for instance, they would know to not knock on doors during harvest or while a village funeral is taking place.

A portrait of Mubarak Mohammed, a community volunteer from Nigeria.
Mubarak Muhammad, a community volunteer from Zamfara State, Nigeria.

“I think people chose me because they feel I am capable, because I am close to the community and because they can trust I can do the work. I am delighted to be doing this work. People see me with respect and dignity because of the work I am doing,” explains Mubarak Muhammad, a community volunteer from Zamfara State, Nigeria.

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

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, Ajuna and Mary, 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.

Two community volunteers in Yantodo, Nigeria, walk through their village with their dose poles to distribute treatment.
Hawau Aliyu (right) and Nura Rufai (left) are volunteers in Tsafe, Nigeria.

Disease prevention

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.

Bob Kaifa, a community volunteer working on the prevention of schistosomiasis in Liberia as part of the Ascend West and Central Africa programme, supported the distribution of 5.5 million treatments to protect communities from NTDs in the country during the programme’s first year.

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.

Community 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.

A child drinks water from a cup during a drug administration session in Nigeria.

The Ascend programme

As part of Ascend in West and Central Africa, volunteers are helping to treat millions of people for neglected tropical diseases across 13 countries.

About Ascend

In 2019, Sightsavers ran the largest-ever distribution of trachoma medication in Zimbabwe through the Accelerate programme, which aims to eliminate trachoma in at least eight African countries and make significant progress in several others. Thanks to community volunteers, 1.4 million people were protected from trachoma in just one week.

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.

Bob is smiling and standing outside.

“I love the work, because it helps to save people. The work is important because it’s educational; it informs the community how they should live healthily.”

Bob is smiling and standing outside.

- Bob Kaifa

Meet more volunteers

A man talks with community members.
Sightsavers Reports

James's story

James came to the Kakuma refugee camp in 2015 after fleeing war in South Sudan. He now works for the camp’s eye clinic, where he reassures patients about their treatment.

A woman dressed in traditional clothing poses for the camera. she is blind in her left eye.
Sightsavers Reports

The friend next door: how Ekeno’s neighbour saved her sight

Ekeno was experiencing terrible pain in her eyes, until her neighbour, Sightsavers-trained community worker Susan, was able to get her the help she needed.

Sightsavers from the field

Working together to tackle NTDs in Liberia

In the first year of the programme, the Ascend West and Central Africa partners have supported health workers and volunteers to deliver mass treatment campaigns that will help tackle high rates of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Liberia.

August 2020

Find out more about NTDs

Neglected tropical diseases