Britain’s Countess of Wessex to visit Malawi to celebrate Malawi’s elimination of eye disease trachoma

Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex GCVO, who is Global Ambassador for the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), will visit Malawi from Wednesday to Friday October 12-14 — celebrate with the Malawian Government and partners, the huge steps taken over the last decade to eliminate the infectious eye disease trachoma.

Sophie, The Countess of Wessex is a member of the British royal family, who is married to Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex — the youngest brother of King Charles III.

HRH The Countess of Wessex

A statement from the British High Commission to Malawi in Lilongwe, says Countess Sophie will visit Salima District to see first-hand how the national trachoma elimination programme has benefited the lives of the people of Malawi.

She is also to appreciate how the Ministry of Health and their partners have worked at the district level to implement the interventions required to stop the spread of trachoma as well as taking part in activities to mark World Sight Day in Malawi on Thursday, October 13.

The high Commission says Her Royal Highness will also visit Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe to appreciate the work of the ophthalmology department in tackling blindness as well as seeing how other UK Aid-funded programmes, including the oxygen plant that was built in 2020 as part of the CoVID-19 response, helped save lives at the height of the pandemic.

British High Commissioner to Malawi, Fiona Ritchie is quoted as saying: “We are delighted to welcome HRH The Countess of Wessex to Malawi to join celebrations to mark the elimination of trachoma.

“This is the outcome of investment and strong partnerships between the government, Sightsavers and development partners including UKAid.

“Malawi is rightly proud to tell this remarkable story to the whole world about the impressive health outcomes that can be achieved despite numerous challenges, disruptions and economic shocks, for example Covid-19, and natural disasters such as cyclones and floods.”

Trachoma, one of the 20 diseases classed as ‘neglected tropical diseases’ (NTDs), is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that Malawi had become the first country in Southern Africa to eliminate it.

British High Commissioner to Malawi, Fiona Ritchie

Predominant in areas where there are chronic water shortages and poor sanitation, trachoma starts off as a bacterial infection similar to conjunctivitis. It is easily treatable through antibiotics.

However, if left untreated, the disease causes progressive scarring to the eyelid, causing intense pain and eventually leading to permanent blindness.

Trachoma has affected over 9.5 million people nationwide in 2014 and according to world health experts, the disease is a devastating condition which can turn eyelashes inwards so that they scrape painfully against the eyeball – and left untreated causes permanent sight loss.

The elimination, announced on September 21, follows 12 years of sustained action led by the Malawi government with a network of support spearheaded by the non-profit Sightsavers.

It is the first country-funded by The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust to achieve this milestone. The Trust was established in 2012 to create a legacy for late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, by eliminating trachoma in the Commonwealth.

Receiving the good news, President, Lazarus Chakwera had said he was “proud to lead Malawi’s celebration in defeating yet another neglected tropical disease”.

“This success in eliminating trachoma – the world’s leading cause of infectious blindness, coming so soon after our country celebrated the elimination of elephantiasis in 2020, shows the fight against neglected tropical diseases can be won.

“I would like to pay special tribute to our wonderful community health workers, many of them women, who played an instrumental role in getting us here, freeing millions of our citizens from so much misery caused by these diseases.

“We now hope to replicate this success across other NTDs. We may be the first in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), but we are determined not to be the last.

“I urge my fellow Heads of State to endorse the Kigali Declaration on NTDs and commit to its delivery as a gateway to ending NTDs,” Chakwera had said.

Malawi’s announcement follows recent elimination successes in other African countries, that include Morocco, Ghana, The Gambia and Togo.

To achieve elimination, the Ministry of Health and its partners followed the WHO-endorsed SAFE strategy which combines surgery to stop eyelashes scraping the eye, antibiotics to prevent and treat infection, and facial cleanliness and environmental improvements to stop infection spreading.

The disease affects largely rural and marginalised communities. In the past 20 years, the number of people at risk of trachoma has dropped by 92%, from around 1.5 billion people in 2002 to 125 million worldwide today, according to recent WHO figures.

But there is still an urgent need to finish the job — the condition still affects people in more than 40 countries, the vast majority of whom are in Africa.

Malawi’s trachoma elimination plan was supported by the UK Department for International Development (now FCDO) to carry out the initial mapping of the disease.

The grants were managed by Sightsavers with drug donations from Pfizer. Subsequent work to achieve elimination was also supported by Sightsavers.

In congratulating Malawi for this achievement, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said as former WHO Representative for Malawi and “someone who knows the country well, it is with great joy that now I have the opportunity to join in congratulating the Government of Malawi on their remarkable success in eliminating trachoma”.

“What Malawi has achieved can and must be repeated throughout the continent.”

Malawi’s trachoma elimination plan included:
● Working with thousands of volunteers, trained to go into their communities to distribute 22.25 million drug treatments of Zithromax®, donated free of charge by Pfizer Inc;
● Training local surgeons to manage more than 6,000 advanced cases of trachoma;
● Supporting more than 250 schools to adopt improved hygiene and sanitation programmes and encouraging children to use their influence to encourage their families and communities to do the same.

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