On Commonwealth Day - two years since visiting Malawi - HRH The Countess of Wessex congratulates the country on progress to eliminate a blinding disease
Today, on the 70th anniversary of the Commonwealth, Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex, in her capacity as Vice-Patron of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, congratulated Malawi on their concerted efforts to eliminate trachoma – an ancient, blinding disease - across the country.
In response to Malawi’s Ministry of Health’s recent announcement, in a statement published on the Royal Family’s website this morning, The Countess wrote, "I am delighted to hear the news that it is now official: Malawi has removed the risk of trachoma across the country.
In 2014, when The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust – of which I am Vice-Patron – began work in Malawi, 8 million people were at risk of losing their sight to trachoma. Now there are none.”
Trachoma is a debilitating, blinding condition that has plagued communities for millennia. Over 1.9 million people are currently blind or visually impaired from the disease, yet it is completely avoidable. It is caused by a bacterial infection, most commonly found in poor, rural communities with limited access to clean water and sanitation. It is easily spread from person to person, the majority of cases being women and children. Repeated infection causes the eyelashes to turn inwards, and without treatment, every painful blink scratches the front of the eye, causing irreversible vision loss.
Malawi is one of 12 Commonwealth countries where The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust is working closely with ministries of health, local communities and members of the International Coalition for Trachoma Control to fight trachoma. Malawi is the first country within the Trust’s Trachoma Initiative to have reduced the prevalence of the disease to under five per cent of the population – a huge milestone in its journey to wipe out the disease in its entirety.
The Countess of Wessex visited Malawi exactly two years ago to see the work of the Trust’s Trachoma Initiative in action. Reflecting on the visit, The Countess said, "When I visited the country in 2017, the last few cases of trachoma were being located and treated. For the next two years, the country will carefully monitor and manage any new cases of trachoma. All being well, in 2020 the World Health Organisation will be able to certify that the disease is eliminated as a public health problem in Malawi. What an achievement that will be.”
The Trust’s Trachoma Initiative has been implementing a WHO-endorsed approach to eliminate trachoma across the country, called the SAFE strategy. To date, its efforts have provided 4,800 people with sight-saving and pain-relieving surgery, nearly 13 million people with vital antibiotics to prevent infection and has installed over 1,600 hand and face washing stations at 145 schools to help stop the spread of the disease. Health systems have been improved to such an extent that they are now equipped to manage any future cases of trachoma.
The Countess expressed hope that the same outcome can be achieved elsewhere in the Commonwealth, “I commend Malawi for reaching this milestone and I am filled with hope that other Commonwealth nations where the disease is endemic are equally committed to ending this ancient scourge.”
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London last April, Commonwealth governments committed to take action towards achieving access to quality eye care for all, and the elimination of trachoma, which disproportionately affects women and children, across the Commonwealth.
An interview with The Countess of Wessex on her work to champion the elimination of avoidable blindness across the Commonwealth will be aired as part of A Service of Celebration for the Commonwealth on BBC One at 14.15 – 16.00 GMT and the BBC World Service at 15:00 GMT on Monday 11 March.