Cassandra Rotolo 2017-08-17 10:42:42
Tackling Trachoma Takes Teamwork Lions have saved millions from blindness caused by trachoma, a bacterial infection leading to scarred corneas and resulting in a slow, painful process toward complete blindness. Lions Clubs International Foundation’s (LCIF) SightFirst program has awarded more than US$29 million to The Carter Center to combat trachoma in Africa. Lion Kelly Callahan is director of The Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program. LION Magazine: When did you know you wanted to dedicate your life to humanitarian work? Kelly Callahan: I grew up knowing I wanted to help. My mother taught this from a very young age. Actually she lived it, and I was a witness to the joys of helping others. I spent three summers during my undergraduate degree assisting studies on orcas (killer whales) in British Columbia, and then I went on to volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps. I was assigned to Côte d’Ivoire in 1996 to work on Guinea worm disease, a painful parasitic infection spread through contaminated drinking water. On my second day, a man lifted his shirt to show me the Guinea worm growing just under his skin in his abdominal area. In that moment I was struck with the notion that that no one should have to suffer from such a horrible disease. LM: How did you get involved in the fight against trachoma? KC: During my time in the Peace Corps, we created a filter frame that proved to be extremely useful; we saw a 47 percent reduction in cases of Guinea worm disease the first year. Then we saw virtually zero new cases. I met representatives from The Carter Center at a conference. I fell in love with the possibility of helping millions of people. In 1998, I joined their team and began working on Guinea worm and onchocerciasis [river blindness]. In 2001, I saw a young boy about 5 years of age who needed surgery in both eyes from trachoma. It was absolutely horrendous. I knew I could help. The Carter Center was willing to assist the people of South Sudan, not only in Guinea worm eradication and onchocerciasis control, but also toward controlling trachoma. So we started interventions to control trachoma in Sudan in 2001. I later transitioned to The Carter Center offices in Atlanta and eventually became director of the trachoma program. LM: What do you think have been the biggest barriers to overcoming this disease? KC: The hardest thing to do is to change our own behavior. Imagine you grow up with no access to water or sanitation. These concepts are later introduced to you, but you don’t understand why they’re important. We need to help people overcome barriers to changed behaviors so they wash their faces, wash their children’s faces, build and use latrines. Beyond that, these are environmentally challenging areas. Piped water and sanitation are huge challenges for governments. How do these infrastructure developments take place? How are these large-scale systems funded in very challenging areas? LM: What has been the most pivotal advance in fighting trachoma? KC: I think partnerships have made the biggest difference. In 1999, we were the single entity looking at this in a big way. Our partnership with LCIF and local Lions in endemic countries helped us move into more countries. Partnerships and their formation have been pivotal in advancing a global program. LM: LCIF and The Carter Center first teamed up in 1999. What is your fondest memory of Lions and The Carter Center working together? KC: I have so many! First, the Lions clubs of Uganda have a very strong female presence. The neglected tropical disease coordinator for the Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Edridah, is a Lion. The Carter Center country representative, Peace Habomugisha, is a Lion. Being with these women and other Lions, including Lion Night Ndyarugahi, is unforgettable—seeing them strategize on controlling trachoma. These are empowered women working toward ending blindness. Second, in 2016, I attended a mass drug administration launch ceremony of Pfizer-donated Zithromax®, the antibiotic used to control trachoma, in Amhara, Ethiopia. Past International President Joe Preston was there. His face just lit up when he saw how a single dose of medicine makes so much difference. Preston even sang to the joy of the crowd. I cried. LM: Trachoma is one of the oldest known infectious diseases. How close do you think we are to eliminating it? KC: The elimination of blinding trachoma is within reach. However, because of the scope of the problem in Ethiopia and a few countries, like South Sudan, we may need a few more years, but I’m more than confident that together with the Lions we will reach our goal. LM: Is there anything else you would like to share with Lions? KC: President Carter became a Lion when he left his U.S. Navy service. His desire to help the poorest of the poor, coupled with Lions’ desire to be Knights of the Blind and look at diseases over the longterm, have made a lasting impact on me. I look at what we can do through the noble efforts of Lions-Carter Center partnership and I am energized. What an effective partnership! Over 400 million treatments and over 600,000 sight-saving surgeries. I’m honored to be part of this. SightFirst AND Trachoma • 600,000+ trichiasis surgeries completed. • LCIF and local Lions have helped to distribute more than 152 million doses of Zithromax© (donated by Pfizer). • 3 million latrines and water wells have been built in Africa. SightFirst supports trachoma elimination activities in Ethiopia, Niger and Mali through The Carter Center and in Uganda through the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. Additionally there are other donors, like Pfizer, and implementing partners, like the International Trachoma Initiative and SightSavers, involved in this important work. Trachoma cannot be eliminated by a single organization. It will take all of these organizations pooling their efforts and resources to eliminate this blinding disease.
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