Elizabeth, from Lodwar, a large town in Turkana, northern Kenya, is an ophthalmic clinical officer who has been performing cataract surgery for a number of years. But in 2019, after training from experienced surgeon Maurice Abony, she joined a team of sight-saving specialists who operate on people with trichiasis, the most advanced stage of trachoma. Trichiasis makes the eyelashes turn inward where they will painfully rub against the cornea. If left untreated, trichiasis can cause immense pain and cause blindness.
Elizabeth’s appointment signifies just how far things have come in the area. A decade ago, Turkana was experiencing the highest prevalence of trachoma of any Kenyan county, and nine per cent of adults were in need of trichiasis surgery to prevent them from permanent sight loss. Much of the terrain in Turkana is desert, and the dry, dusty conditions coupled with a lack of water and sanitation had enabled trachoma to spread. Fast-forward 10 years and Turkana is now reporting the lowest trachoma levels of any county in the country – an incredible reversal of fortunes.
Before 2010 there were no qualified trichiasis surgeons in Turkana, but Kenya’s national trachoma programme, supported by Sightsavers and a myriad of partners, has changed that. At first, just one surgeon in Turkana was trained to operate on trichiasis, but the need was so great the team soon grew. In 2019, when Elizabeth became part of the county’s trachoma team, she joined seven other surgeons, 16 ophthalmic nurses, three optometrists, 38 assistants, 250 community health workers and almost 2,000 volunteer case-finders.
This intensified effort has had a significant impact. There has been a dramatic reduction in the number of people with trichiasis, so much so that mass surgery camps in Turkana have now ceased.