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Health

Joanna Lumley Is Speaking Out to End This Seriously Neglected Disease

Actress and human rights activist Joanna Lumley is raising her voice to put an end to a hidden and neglected disease that, although many of us have never heard of it, is actually the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world. 

It’s called trachoma, and it puts more than 190 million people at risk of blindness in 41 countries, according to the World Health Organisation. It’s responsible for the blindness or visual impairment of around 1.9 million people worldwide. 

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But, vitally, it’s completely preventable and countries around the world are successfully eliminating it. What we need now is for the whole world to put some muscle behind stamping it out for good.

Take action: No Woman Should Suffer From Diseases We Know How to Treat or Prevent

And that’s where Joanna Lumley comes in — using her public profile to raise awareness of this debilitating disease.

When Lumley first saw an advert about trachoma in a newspaper 20 years ago, she wrote in an article for the Telegraph, “it stopped me in my tracks.” 

“I remember being shocked at how cheap it can be to stop trachoma in its early stages and that the condition is completely preventable altogether,” wrote Lumley, an ambassador for Sightsavers, an NGO that works against avoidable blindness. 

“The infection is spread by flies and, I think perhaps most tragically, by human touch, meaning that mothers wiping the faces of their children might accidentally pass the infection to them and vice versa,” she added. 

Read more: These 7 Countries Eliminated a Neglected Tropical Disease in 2017 — and More Will Follow in 2018

Trachoma is caused by bacterial infection that can be spread through contact with discharge from the eyes and nose of an infected person — particularly young children — or through flies which have been in contact with the eyes or nose of an infected person. 

If the initial infection isn’t treated, or if a person has repeated infections, it can cause the inside of the eyelid to become so scarred it turns inwards, facing the eyelashes to rub against the eyeball, scarring the eyeball, and potentially causing blindness. 

Trachoma is one of a group of parasitic and bacterial diseases known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) — there are 149 countries and territories worldwide that are affected by at least one NTD, and 100% of low-income countries are affected by at least five at a time. Right now, 1.5 billion of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people are facing the threat of NTDs. 

Read more: The Most Dangerous Diseases You've Never Heard of

NTDs include leprosy, dengue, Chagas, sleeping sickness, rabies, elephantiasis, onchocerciasis (river blindness), soil-transmitted helminthiases, and many more. 

But the one thing they all have in common is that they’re diseases of poverty. Affected adults can’t go to work, children can’t go to school, and these diseases only serve to prolong the cycle of poverty. 

The good news, however, is that the international community is stepping up and taking notice, and countries are consigning these diseases to the history books. In 2017, seven countries eliminated an NTD, and more are doing the same this year. 

“More and more countries around the world are closer than ever the ending the disease for good, showing that aid works,” Lumley wrote. 

Read more: This Man Overcame a Neglected Tropical Disease You've Probably Never Heard of

She added that, between 2012 and 2015, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) supported the largest infectious disease mapping survey in history, the Global Trachoma Mapping Project — which she described as “a significant turning point in the fight to end trachoma” because it pinpointed exactly where the disease was most prevalent. 

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But UK aid hasn’t stopped there. 

In April, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London, the UK’s secretary of state for international development, Penny Mordaunt, announced £20 million of funding to boost efforts to eliminate trachoma in 10 Commonwealth countries. 

The funding will help individuals and families in Kenya, Kiribati, Nauru, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Tonga, and Vanuatu, and will provide 5.5 million people with access to antibiotics, and up to 76,000 people with surgery.

Read more: Why It's Critical That Women Lead the Fight Against Neglected Tropical Diseases

“I think also, crucially, through the promotion of hygiene and sanitation practices, the new funding from UK aid will raise awareness to trachoma and how individuals and families can protect themselves from getting it or unknowingly pass the infection to others,” added Lumley. “Thus helping to foster healthy lifelong behaviours and practices.”

For Lumley, the fight against trachoma is only a matter of time. And not much time at that. 

“At the pace we’re going, cumulatively, our efforts could mean that if we continue to push ourselves, the world will see the end of trachoma in just a few years,” she wrote. “About time too. Nobody, no matter their wealth or what country they live in, should go blind from a disease that can be avoided, or watch a loved one endure the pain of an easily preventable condition.” 

“If we keep up this momentum, soon millions of people will finally be free of the pain, potential blindness, and poverty caused by trachoma,” she added. “Grannies, parents, children, and whole communities the world over really, will have something to celebrate.” 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on ensuring everyone, everywhere, has access to quality healthcare. You can join us by taking action here to help combat neglected tropical diseases across the world.