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“I want to ensure that people with the disease are helped.”

A mans sits for a portrait in an empty room.

The Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana, a remote border region in northern Kenya, is a temporary home to many people from South Sudan who have been displaced by war – and many who have diseases such as trachoma.

Thankfully because of volunteers like James Reath Khok, as part of Sightsavers and partners’ Accelerate programme, we are helping people with the neglected tropical disease (NTD) trachoma to get the care they need when facilities are scarce. Ensuring refugees in the camp have access to trachoma treatment, and surgery if needs be, has many challenges.

Until recently, the blinding disease was highly prevalent in Turkana. But in 2019, this vast rural region reached a significant milestone when trachoma infections fell to such a low level that the number of people with advanced trachoma, or trichiasis, dramatically reduced and mass outreach surgeries to protect people from permanent sight loss were stopped. This is especially impressive, given that less than 10 years ago, nine per cent of adults in Turkana needed surgery.

The remote, resource-poor nature of the region makes this achievement particularly impressive, and is a gain the Kenyan government is keen to protect as it works to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem within the next few years.

Despite the huge reduction of the disease in Turkana, trachoma is endemic in South Sudan, with 2015 data suggesting between 30 to 50 per cent of people living in areas that border Kenya are affected. People in the camp, many of whom are from South Sudan, are dealing with the traumatic effects of war and displacement, and despite high levels of disease, access to healthcare is poor. To complicate matters further, numerous ethnic communities live in the camps, each with differing approaches to disease and healthcare, and numerous languages are spoken.

Failing to treat trachoma in communities such as the Kakuma refugee camp would not only result in many vulnerable people being at risk of permanent sight loss, it is also crucial for preventing future spread of this infectious disease.

A surgeon performs trachoma surgery on a patient in Benin.

The Accelerate trachoma elimination programme

The Accelerate programme aims to eliminate trachoma in at least eight African countries and make significant progress in several others, including Kenya. It is now within our grasp to rid the world of this disease.

Learn more

That’s why people such as James  are invaluable. James came to the Kakuma camp in 2015 after fleeing war in South Sudan, and his ability to speak six languages, combined with his desire to help others, has seen him provide an invaluable link between other refugees and the eye care services on offer. James now works for the camp’s eye clinic, where he reassures patients about the treatment they receive.

There are many misconceptions about trachoma in the camp and in Turkana itself, such as the notion that surgeons will remove someone’s eye, which means many people with trachoma are reluctant to seek help. James spends his days countering rumours and misconceptions such as these, providing accurate and clear health information in numerous languages, and translating between patients and health workers.

A man helps a nurse before trachoma surgery.
James helps a nurse prepare for trachoma surgery.

When there is need, he has also been trained to provide basic medical assistance such as helping out during surgery by shining a torch on the eye that is being operated on, and translating some health and cleanliness guidance to patients, following bandage removal.

“Trachoma is preventable and treatable so I want to ensure that people with the disease are helped,” says James. “This means in the future they can help themselves.

“I make sure that everyone is okay and doesn’t have any problems. I am their son, I was born in this community and so I like being able to give assistance.”

A man conducts an eye test.

“I’ve committed myself to serving people.”

A man conducts an eye test.

Find out more about trachoma

Sightsavers and fighting disease

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