In May 2023, the World Health Organization announced that trachoma had been eliminated as a public health problem in Benin.
This follows years of action led by the Benin government, with the support of Sightsavers and funding from high-profile international donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the ELMA Foundation and Virgin Unite through the Accelerate programme.
We’re celebrating this achievement by sharing the stories of people in the country who have been affected by trachoma, or have worked to eliminate the disease – and have experienced first-hand the social and economic ripple effect that access to eye health services can create within communities.
These stories feature people like Awaou, who was able to work again following surgery, and Dr Alamou, who has travelled to remote areas to reach people enduring the pain of advanced trachoma.
Awaou, who has eight children and 10 grandchildren, had surgery for advanced trachoma in 2021.
“Before the disease got worse, I used to make local soap. Once the eye disease evolved, I could no longer make soap because my eyes hurt so much. I would scratch them with my fingers; they were itchy and watery. My vision became blurry.
“The health workers went from house to house and identified me as one who needed to come to the hospital for eye surgery. They gave me medicine for my eyes before asking me to come to the hospital and that encouraged me.
“A few weeks after the surgery, I was able to resume my activities. I am very happy because I can make my own money without waiting for anyone’s help. Many people buy my soap.
“I don’t want my grandchildren to go through what I went through with this disease. For me, eliminating trachoma means being free.”
Nanyako is a widow who has two children and 10 grandchildren. She was treated as part of the first advanced trachoma surgery outreach three years ago.
“I don’t remember how long ago I had the surgery for my eye disease, but I have fully recovered my sight now.
“I prepare and sell tobacco, but before the eye surgery I could not do it. Before the surgery, my eyes itched a lot, and I couldn’t get the tobacco out. I was scratching my eyes all the time and my left eye was hurting more than my right eye.
“I accepted the treatment because I was in so much pain. It was through a local case-finder that I learned about this opportunity. He came to our house and informed us that my eye disease could be treated and that I could be cured.
“After the surgery, all the pain was gone – it was like a miracle. With my eyes in good condition, I manage my business and my profits myself. Since last year I don’t have enough strength to sell the tobacco anymore, so I get help from my granddaughters.
“You can see my composure: I dance, and I am very happy. I ask everyone to go to the hospital for any health problem because it is there that they saved my eyes. I am very happy thinking that the next generation will not suffer from this disease.”
Saadou is a surgeon who identifies and operates on patients with advanced trachoma.
“I am involved in the different stages – in the detection of cases during the organisation of surgical outreaches, counselling patients, surgery and follow-up of patients. I also participate in the training of case-finders.
“My advantage in the field is that I speak all the local languages and I do not need an interpreter to communicate with my patients. This makes my job easier.
“Before the Accelerate project, I had never operated on TT (trachomatous trichiasis or advanced trachoma) cases. During the training at the university we were told about it. One of our professors took us to rural areas to recognise and confirm cases of TT.
“What inspired me was the fact that I could give a second chance to people who were stuck because of eye issues. Our participation has allowed them to get on with their lives and that is very motivating for me.
“Once we went to a surgical outreach – we managed the male patients at first. When it came to the women’s turn, they all refused and hesitated. Among them was the local chief’s wife. She stepped forward and agreed to be the first to be operated on, among the women, to set a good example. Thanks to her, all the other women accepted the surgery.
“The joy of the TT patients is very encouraging. The gratitude expressed by the communities every time I meet with the groups of former patients is unforgettable.”
Maurice is the ‘focal point’ for neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) for the Tchaourou health zone in Benin.
“In the role of NTD focal point, I work in collaboration with the national programme of control of communicable diseases. I am in charge of all activities concerning NTDs in my health area.
“What really motivated me was that when I began working, I didn’t even know that a disease like trachoma still existed. I heard about it during my training but I didn’t know what it was really about and it was during the screenings that I saw a lot of people suffering from it.
“I knew about trachoma theoretically but not in depth. It was with the Accelerate surgery outreach programme that I really learned what it was all about. The surgery outreaches have improved my knowledge about trachoma.
“I treated a woman whose eyelids were touching her eye and she was suffering. She could not go about her business and this brought sadness to the family, but after the surgery she resumed her activities normally. She is so pleased; it is because of this programme that we found out about her.
“What has struck me the most is the recognition and gratefulness of the patients; this moral satisfaction that we have saved lives.
“In all our community-based activities we always talk about trachoma. We remind people that it is a disease that has existed, and it is thanks to the intervention of projects like Accelerate that it has come to an end. It is important that they maintain these achievements for the development of the country.”