Sightsavers stories

“I like being in a position to help my community”

Meet Elizabeth, an ophthalmic surgeon who is helping to restore sight in Kenya.

A surgeon dressed in scrubs prepares for theatre

Elizabeth Akiru is one of the latest recruits in Kenya’s efforts to eliminate trachoma.

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.

Trachoma surgeon checks the eyes of a patient for signs of trachoma outside her home in Benin.

What is trachoma?

Trachoma is a bacterial infection that if left untreated, can cause incredible pain and blindness.

More about the disease
An optometrist sits with her equipment.
Elizabeth checks the eyes of a patient at an eye clinic in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya.

“I felt great doing my first [trichiasis] surgery and it was successful,” says Elizabeth. “It is quite a straightforward operation, and I wasn’t nervous because of my training.

“Seeing the patients I operated on the day before was good – they were happy and appreciative – and I’m excited to do more operations. I like being in a position to help my community.”

In large part, Elizabeth says her success is due to the training she received.

“I love training with Maurice; he’s a great teacher and has taught me some new surgical techniques,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed my training but I’m still learning – there are so many different techniques to learn, but I’m happy with how things are going.

“My favourite part is doing the surgery and seeing the successful results. It motivates you.”

Sightsavers provides support to the Kenyan government to treat trachoma in Turkana through funding from UK aid’s Commonwealth Fund.

Elizabeth stands outside an eye clinic.

“My favourite part is doing the surgery and seeing the successful results. It motivates you.”

Elizabeth stands outside an eye clinic.

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