Up until she began having eye problems, Selina Chepserum spent her days harvesting termites in the arid lands of northwestern Kenya. She would haul around 100 pound masses of termites, preparing and selling the bulk to people in her village for traditional dishes. For a long time, this was how she provided for her family, who relied on her small profits.
It began as a stabbing pain. Then, her eyelashes started to grow into her eye, scraping her cornea and blurring her vision. The scarring of her eyes became so bad that she could no longer tend to her livestock, see the face of the person sitting next to her, or collect the bugs from the termite mounds that brought her family revenue.
“I felt so bad,” she said, “like there was no need for me to be alive because I couldn’t do the smallest thing for myself.”
Chepserum is one of over 100 million people in 57 countries who suffer from trachoma.
The disease is common in arid, dusty areas with poor sanitation, like certain parts of Kenya, where the disease is considered to be the second leading cause of blindness after cataracts.
Traditionally the caretakers of the home, they often come into close contact with infected children, which results in a greater frequency of infections, according to the World Health Organization.
The disease, which leaves a person blind for life, is actually entirely preventable and treatable with antibiotics and, in some cases, surgery. But for women like Chepserum who live in remote villages, the proper treatment, resources, or doctors may not always be readily available.
After she was infected, Chepserum resorted to unproven folk remedies. She would spend days waiting for her children to return home and help her pull out her eyelashes to alleviate the pain.
If her family wasn’t available, she would pay a stranger 100 shillings (about $1) or a few pounds of corn to get the job done, using up her profit while risking the chance of contracting yet another infection.
“It’s a painful process,” she said. “They have to make sure that all the hair growing inside my eye comes out. But within a short time, maybe three days or a week, you feel them coming back.”
Increasingly, the disease is beginning to gain awareness through elimination programs like the WHO-recommended SAFE strategy which treated 86 million people with antibiotics.
Although Chepserum will suffer the consequences of the disease for the rest of her life, there is still hope for the millions in endemic countries.