Africa

In pictures: Mali’s motorbiking eye surgeons

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

Eye surgeons in Mali travel long distances in extreme heat on motorbikes visiting remote villages to try and eliminate one of the leading causes of preventable blindness.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

They go from village to village and treat anyone with the advanced stages of trachoma, a bacterial infection, before it causes irreversible blindness. Trachoma is common in children and the women who care for them. It is infectious and is spread by coming into direct contact with the discharge produced from the eyes or nose of an infected person through contaminated objects such as towels. Flies also transfer the bacteria from the discharge.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

The locally trained health workers upload their findings by mobile phone to a central system. They report the number of people they screen for the disease, the surgeries they carry out, and the number of follow-up consultations they provide.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

Here in the remote village of N'Korobougou, in the western region of Koulikoro, Boubacar Fomba diagnoses a 68-year-old woman with trichiasis, the advanced stage of trachoma, where the infection has become so bad that the eyelashes have turned inwards, painfully scratching the eyeball with every blink. "I started having pain and itching there about 20 years ago," says Kany Doumbia, who earns a living through agriculture and gardening.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

Mr Fomba is part of a team working on a Sightsavers project to tackle a backlog of advanced cases in Mali. It is hoped that the disease can be eliminated in the West African nation by the end of next year - an aim made possible largely thanks to a multi-million dollar donation by the Conrad N Hilton Foundation.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

The 10 surgeons in the team work across 10 different districts, each covering between 20km (12 miles) and 30km a day and conducting at least three operations each day. Poor communities in hot and dusty climates - where access to water is poor - are most affected by the disease.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

During surgery the eyelid is rotated outwards, directing the eyelashes away from the eyeball - a procedure that takes as little as 10 minutes. Globally an estimated 8 million people suffer from the advanced stages of the disease and require surgery to prevent them from going blind. In Mali, an estimated 25,000 people need surgery before elimination is reached. The prevalence of the disease amongst children under nine has dropped to below 5%.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

After the surgery, Ms Doumbia said she felt a real change because the pain she used to have had gone - and she was relieved that she would be able to continue to sell her garden produce in the nearest city, Ouelessebougou. "I had started to fear losing my sight because the pain became frequent and often my vision was blurred," she said.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

"We consult dozens of people per day," Mr Fomba says. "And people come to us because they were recommended by other patients. That makes us feel proud." Antibiotics are also prescribed to treat the infections - and the surgeons explain that facial cleanliness is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the bacteria.

Image copyright Javier Acebal/Sightsavers

In the afternoon, each motorbike surgeon sets off for the next village where they will spend the night - so that another day of examinations and operations can begin early the next morning. Gallery by Javier Acebal for Sightsavers.

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