Sightsavers Reports

“Curing people is what I love most about my job”

Sister Habiba Shemsu.

Imagine having to walk eight hours to get to work. That’s the challenge facing Sister Habiba Shemsu, an eye care worker in the Arba Minch district of south-west Ethiopia.

Much of her work takes place in rural communities, where she diagnoses and operates on patients with trichiasis (advanced trachoma), as well as glaucoma and cataracts.

Yet she doesn’t let the gruelling commute affect her. She says it’s worth it to see people who once suffered from debilitating eye diseases, leaving them unable to look after themselves, being able to live independently.

She has a compelling reason for choosing to work in eye heath: her own aunt is blind. Ever since she was a girl, she remembers her aunt being unable to get around by herself because of her visual impairment. “I wish I had become an eye doctor before,” she explains. “Then I could have helped her see before it was too late.”

A five-year-old girl in Ethiopia has her eyes checked for trachoma.

Providing essential rural outreach

Sister Habiba started her career as a nurse, yet there was little attention paid to eye care as part of her nursing training. So last year, when she was chosen to become an integrated eye care worker, she travelled to the district capital, Arba Minch, where she was trained by a surgeon.

A large part of her work is to carry out surgery in the rural neighbourhood health outposts, treating patients with glaucoma, cataracts and trachoma.

Sister Habiba’s outreach work is run by eye health charity Orbis, as part of a five-year programme funded by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID). The programme is overseen by Sightsavers, on behalf of the International Coalition for Trachoma Control. Working in Chad, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia, it aims to provide surgery for more than 155,000 people affected by trichiasis, and antibiotics to protect more than 14 million people against trachoma, the bacterial infection that causes trichiasis.

As part of the World Health Organization’s SAFE strategy, the programme also educates communities to improve hygiene and sanitation practices, and works with others to improve access to safe water sources and sanitation.

Children stand under a tree in Ethiopia with rolling fields in the background.

A saviour in the community

Before the outreach project was set up, all patients had to travel to the city’s health centre or the district hospital, a journey that was all but impossible for poor or elderly patients. Now, local communities can receive treatment much closer to home – Sister Habiba has performed about 100 operations in the past year.

Seeing people cured of eye disease is what she enjoys most about her job. She recalls the case of a 55-year-old man who had chronic trichiasis, but refused treatment. After she sat down with him to explain the procedure and what was happening to his eyes, he eventually agreed to surgery.

She recounts how his life improved after the operation – he started preaching at the church, telling the congregation how Sister Habiba gave light to his life. He can now read the Bible, and describes Sister Habiba as his “eyes”. He’s also keen to explain to others in the community why they must look after their eyes.

So how has this affected the community’s perception of Sister Habiba? “My patients see me and kiss me in the street!” she says.

Women in Ethiopia line up to be screened for trachoma.

Trachoma in Ethiopia: the facts

  • More than 75 million people live in trachoma-endemic areas in Ethiopia – the largest number of any country in the world.
  • The backlog of people who urgently need eyelid surgery to prevent blindness from trichiasis is more than 693,000 – again, the largest number of any country in the world.
  • In 2012, Ethiopia launched its first Trachoma Action Plan to tackle the disease, followed by the DFID-funded Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP) to collect data about the disease using smartphones.
  • The GTMP identified that more than 90 per cent of districts in Ethiopia had trachoma at levels that demand a public health solution.
  • Between July 2015 and July 2016, the International Coalition for Trachoma Control (supported by DFID) treated 9.4 million people with antibiotics to combat trachoma infection.
  • To date, more than 16 million antibiotic treatments have been distributed.

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