Trachoma has plagued humanity for thousands of years, as far back as Ancient Egypt. A bacterial infection spread by flies as well as person-to-person, it robs people of their eyesight in the most painful way imaginable: the inner eyelid becomes scarred and turns inwards, causing the eyelashes to scratch the cornea. Trachoma is completely preventable, yet it still blights the world’s poorest communities. More than 182 million people are at risk.
Within a matter of years, we can reach a major milestone in the history of human health: we can stop trachoma from blinding people. Sightsavers implements the World Health Organization-endorsed SAFE strategy, which combines four elements: surgery, antibiotics, face-washing and environmental improvements. This approach treats people suffering from the disease, and also stops it spreading to others. By following this strategy and taking it to new areas, Sightsavers aims to free generations to come from the threat of blindness.
The world economy loses $8 billion to trachoma each year, but eliminating the disease will cost far less than that. Sightsavers has raised the funds needed to take on this ancient disease, and they plan to implement the SAFE approach in key countries where funding gaps are the only thing standing in the way of elimination. While Sightsavers focuses on these countries where elimination is within reach, it is also scaling up efforts in countries with some of the most severe need to make sure no one is left behind.
Sightsavers led the Global Trachoma Mapping Project, the largest infectious disease mapping effort on record, covering 29 countries. The results of the survey will enable Sightsavers and its partners to direct resources quickly and efficiently. The SAFE approach has proved to be extremely effective in practice. Oman was confirmed trachoma-free using this strategy in 2012, and in 2018, Ghana — a nation where Sightsavers has worked with partners since 2000 — became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa for the World Health Organization to announce as having eliminated trachoma. Many others, including Togo and The Gambia, are now going through the WHO’s screening process.
Caroline Harper worked in the gas and oil industry until 2002, before co-founding a management business that specialized on turnaround sales of energy companies. During what she describes as a mid-life gap year, she visited a number of developing countries and felt drawn to international development. “My own family has a lot of blindness, so the mission of Sightsavers really resonated for me,” she explains. She has been CEO of Sightsavers since 2005. Under her leadership, the organization has expanded significantly, treating millions of people and advocating for policy reforms around the world.
In the year since Caroline Harper gave a TED Talk about plans to eliminate trachoma, Sightsavers' has continued to fight preventable diseases, providing more than 113 million treatments in 2018 alone.
Through May 15, 2019, UK Aid will match every pound donated to Sightsavers, up to £2 million. Give now to double your impact.
"The pain is excruciating," said Simon Bush of Sightsavers. "People tell me it's like sandpaper scratching over your eye every time you blink."
Sir John Wilson founded The British Empire Society for the Blind — known today as Sightsavers — in 1950 after mortgaging his home. It's grown to be one of the most-respected nonprofit organizations.
Fifteen years ago, Shiva Lal Rana walked 20 miles to Geta Eye Hospital to ask doctors to pluck out all his eyelashes. Instead, doctors performed what was then a new operation: They gave him surgery to clear up the infection.