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Carter Center Celebrates Trachoma Elimination Milestone in Mali 

FILE - Residents of a village in Mali are screened for trachoma, a neglected tropical disease and the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, Jan. 23, 2017. (The Carter Center via AP)
FILE - Residents of a village in Mali are screened for trachoma, a neglected tropical disease and the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, Jan. 23, 2017. (The Carter Center via AP)

The Carter Center was already a decade into its fight against Guinea worm globally when former President Jimmy Carter and his nonprofit took on another neglected tropical disease in the African nation of Mali.

“From 1996 to 1998, it was estimated about 85,000 to 90,000 people would go blind from trachoma,” said Kelly Callahan, director of the Carter Center’s trachoma control program. “Twenty-five[%] to 50% of the children between the ages of 1 and 9, in all areas of Mali, suffered from the beginning stages of this disease.”

It was a statistic Callahan said troubled Carter.

“The Hilton Foundation asked President Carter and the Carter Center if we would be willing to consider working on sanitation and water to combat this disease called trachoma in Mali and Niger,” she said. The nonprofit foundation has been working to prevent avoidable blindness for more than 20 years.

The Carter Center set a goal of eliminating the disease in both countries. Trachoma can be transmitted through infected discharge from the eyes and nose.

“This disease is preventable,” Callahan explained to VOA during a recent Skype interview. It is “a bacterial infection that stems from access, or lack of access, to water and sanitation, poor living conditions, socioeconomically stressed populations.”

Carter Center Celebrates Elimination of Trachoma in Mali
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Since 1998, the Carter Center and its partners have funded and staffed programs with host nations to develop widespread strategies to treat and prevent infections, even during Mali’s recent armed conflict and continuing instability.

In May, the World Health Organization certified that the countries of Benin and Mali had eliminated trachoma as a public health problem. Six countries in Africa have reached that milestone.

The Carter Center believes its program in Mali has helped avert blindness in more than 5 million people, and the antibiotics used to combat trachoma also help prevent infant mortality, the center said.

“The elimination of trachoma as a public health problem is no less than Herculean,” Callahan told VOA.

Sadi Moussa, the Carter Center’s senior representative in Mali who spoke to VOA via Skype, said he believed the success of his organization’s program to eliminate trachoma could boost efforts to combat other neglected tropical diseases, like Guinea worm.

“Working in an unstable country like this is really challenging for everyone,” Moussa said. “This will also help us with donors to show them that we are serious in what we are doing, and we can convince them to get more resources.”

While Carter has retired from public life and is receiving hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia, Callahan said the center keeps him up to date on the status of its health programs, including recent developments in Mali.

“We heard that President Carter was thrilled beyond belief, so we’re very excited that he knows,” Callahan said, adding that while Mali’s elimination milestone is important, the Carter Center’s work in Africa is far from over.

“Currently, we work in five countries, including Mali. Those countries have the worst known trachoma in the world and are also areas of severe challenges and insecurity and are areas of conflict,” she said.

The World Health Organization said trachoma remains in 23 countries throughout Africa, with approximately 105 million people on the continent living in areas at high risk for infection.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.