Antibiotics to treat the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness were delivered to thousands of people living in remote corners of war-torn Yemen for the first time ever last week. The distribution was the result of global collaboration between the Yemen Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, CBM, The Fred Hollows Foundation, the International Trachoma Initiative and Sightsavers.
More than 444,000 doses of the drug Zithromax®, donated by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, were driven by local health officials through conflict zones and past road blocks to the communities who live in rural Al Hodeidah and Ibb regions where trachoma - a painful but preventable eye disease - remains prevalent. A team of more than 4,000 predominantly female volunteers went door-to-door through 273 villages to ensure it was given safely to those who need it.
Babar Qureshi, Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases at CBM and Chair of the Eastern Mediterranean Region Alliance for Trachoma Control said: “Too many people in this part of the world are still suffering as a result of trachoma – with conflict a major barrier to them getting the treatment they need. So this is a major achievement, testament to effective collaboration between the WHO, Yemen’s Ministry of Health and NGOs and the dedication and bravery of the local teams on the ground. The impact will also extend beyond Yemen as we apply lessons learned to help people living in other conflict-affected areas – for example in Somalia and Afghanistan - to protect them from this painful, blinding disease.”
Trained community health volunteers also gave out wash kits donated by the World Health Organization (WHO) containing soap and hygiene advice to prevent the disease’s spread. Mostly women were chosen as community health volunteers because they can easily go into houses to treat women and children while, due to local custom, men are often not admitted.
The country’s first mass drug administration (MDA) to protect people from blinding trachoma is a rare moment of positive news in Yemen, a country which has been ravaged by several years of civil war and where many face an inadequate water supply and poor sanitation - conditions that help trachoma thrive.
There were many hurdles to distributing treatment on this scale amidst conflict - from getting the drugs past port blockades and diverted-plane routes into the country in the first place, then along dangerous roads from the capital Sana’a where roadblocks and delays are common. Once in the remote areas where they were needed, the antibiotics had to be taken door-to-door in villages where conflict has given locals good reason to be suspicious of strangers.
Trachoma, one of the world’s oldest diseases, is an infectious condition spread by flies and contact with eye discharge from a person with infection. It starts as a bacterial infection and if it is left untreated, scar tissue can develop in the eyelid, turning eyelashes inwards. With every blink, eyelashes painfully scrape the surface of the eye and can cause irreversible blindness. It is one of a collection of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).