Hope in sight for locals as cases of punishing eye disease reduce

Dr Ezekiel Tallam with patients who have undergone surgery to treat trachoma, on January 14. [Mercy Kahenda, Standard]
For a 70-year-old with impaired vision and no one to help him back up when he stumbles, life can be a punishment.

Asman Chepochepunjo has been living alone in Chemsarel village in Tiaty, Baringo County, after he was abandoned by his family when he became blind.

He resorted to traditional herbs, but the condition worsened, making it hard for him to look after his livestock in the rocky locality.

On the verge of becoming blind, Mr Chepochepunjo learnt he was suffering from trachoma, a neglected tropical disease in Baringo County.

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It never occurred to him or his family that the flies that happily swarmed their eyes straight from the heaps of cow dung in their home had robbed him of his eyesight and joy just as it had done to thousands of his fellow villagers and agemates.

But the pastoralist is now a happy man after his sight was restored, following a successful operation.

“I am so humbled to regain my sight. I no longer have itchy eyes or tearing that used to make it hard for me to move around,” says the elderly man as he tethers his livestock.

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Suffer in silence

Chepochepunjo is among hundreds of trachoma victims who suffer in silence in the vast county, a disease majority of locals link to bad omen and being bewitched.

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According to 2011 Ministry of Health survey, at least 7,000 people in Tiaty were on the verge of going blind and 34.8 per cent of children had active trachoma. These cases have now reduced to less than 1,200 and 12.7 per cent, respectively, against the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of less than five per cent.

The numbers have since reduced following regular sensitisation on hygiene and minor surgeries on patients, funded by the ministry.

The ministry undertakes the programme in partnership with Fred Hollows Foundation, an NGO, which has donated Sh100 million since 2011.

In addition, Baringo County Health executive Mary Panga said the county administration allocated Sh6 million in the 2019/2020 budget under the Water Sanitation Hygiene (Wash) programme.

Caroline Chebiwott, a public health community extension officer, is among stakeholders sensitising the public on trachoma in churches, chiefs’ barazas and schools.

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Locals are encouraged to build sanitation facilities such as toilets and bathrooms to curb contraction of trachoma-causing bacteria.

At least 10 schools in Tiaty have received hand wash tanks distributed by the department of public health.

“We walk from house to house to educate locals on the importance of cleaning hands and face. We also educate schoolchildren on sanitation,” said Ms Chebiwott.

However, the traditional belief associating flies with richness is a major hindrance in containing the eye disease. This belief dictates that the locals cannot scare away the flies when they come into contact with their eyes.

Locals also wipe their eyes with dirty hands because they do not have clean water, leaving bacteria on the eyelids.

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According to Dr Ezekiel Tallam, an ophthalmologist at Kabarnet Hospital, who conducts the surgeries, trachoma is a bacterial infection cause by bacterium chlamydia.

The bacterial infection causes roughening of the inner surface of eyelids, common in dry, dusty and unhygienic environments. The infection highly contributes to blindness.

The disease is contagious and spreads through contact with eyes, eyelids and noses of infected people.

“Trachoma is common in pastoral communities and areas with scarcity of water and poor hygiene,” says Dr Tallam.

Symptoms include itching, irritation of the eyelids, swelling of eyelids, pain in the eye, discharge from the eyes and excessive tearing.

According to the eye specialist, trachoma is active in children at the age of between one and nine because of poor hygiene.

At the ages of nine to 15, the bacteria becomes silent. At this point, the muscles that pull the upper eyelids are already affected by active trachoma. The muscles relax.

“Trachoma makes the upper eyelid to fall (propping). When it props down, the upper lashes fall and touch the front part of the cornea, causing scars that result into poor vision,” explains Tallam.

When lashes fall, surgery is conducted to restore vision. The surgery procedure entails pulling up of the lashes.

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