Surgery Helps Malian Mothers Regain Their Independence—and Their Sight

If your ancestors came through Ellis Island, they were likely screened for trachoma, which was considered a “loathsome and dangerous” disease. It was also an ancient one, with evidence of infection of the eye from the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis as early as 8000 B.C.

This disease tore through the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the middle of the country had a “trachoma belt,” where trachoma transmission was exacerbated by poverty, crowding and lack of clean water. Now eliminated, trachoma was once the leading cause of preventable blindness in the U.S. Globally it remains a major cause of blindness, impairing the vision of 2.2 million people and blinding 1.2 million others.

Trachoma causes blindness in a particularly loathsome way — the infection results in the eyelid flipping inwards toward the eye, with eyelashes rubbing against the cornea. Left untreated, the individual could blink themselves blind.

Many people know the story of Helen Keller, who was struck blind and deaf from an unknown infection at an early age. Less well known is the fact that Helen’s amazing and dedicated teacher, Anne Sullivan, contracted trachoma as a child and lost most of her vision by age seven.

HKI is carrying on the work of these women, helping local communities still ravaged by trachoma, and working towards the disease’s global elimination. HKI partners with governments and travels to affected areas with trained local surgeons in order to prevent the transmission of trachoma and preserve the sights of those afflicted.

Djita Dansira

In May, our staff visited the village of Djourdaloma in western Mali. They spoke with Djita Dansira, an 87-year-old woman who had surgery a few months ago on her right eye. Before the surgery, Dansira’s eye was inflamed and painful and her face was dirty with the secretions from her eye. She had difficulty getting around on her own due to her inability to see. Thanks to the surgery, Dansira reports less pain and tearing, allowing her to spend more time with her family and regain her independence. Though her eyesight is limited due to the irreversible effects of trachoma, Dansira is extremely pleased with the results.

Six hours away, in the village of Mansala, Djantou Keita, a 35-year-old mother of four children, told our staff that the surgery, which she had on both of her eyes, meant that she was able to work again in the family’s fields and cook to provide for her family. Though initially scared by the thought of the operation, Keita now encourages others to undergo it. 

“Everything is better now. I can see better and I can work in the fields again. I’m happy I had the operation,” Keita told us. “Without the surgery, I couldn’t see a future,” she says. “Now I can work and look after my children.”

Worldwide the economic cost of trachoma is estimated to be more than $8 billion annually due to lost productivity. But as Dansira and Keita show, the cost is also much more than economic—pain and suffering, stigma and isolation from their families and communities.

HKI is working to empower communities with the knowledge and ability to prevent reinfection and further damage to their health. With the widely incorporated SAFE strategy—surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environmental improvements—we hope to encourage early treatment and prevention tactics, especially in communities where trachoma is still prevalent. One day, this terrible disease will be merely a speck in history; until then, we will continue to fight against it.  — Joey Yamada