/ 30 January 2023

From blindness to sight – celebrating Malawi’s progress on World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day

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in October, Malawi became the first nation in southern Africa to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem. Photo: Getty Images

“I was blind, but now I see.” This is what Vainesi, from Salima District in central Malawi, said after surgery to treat trachoma. A mother of three, Vainesi was unable to work or provide for her family once the disease began to affect her eyesight.

Vainesi is one of the millions of Malawians who join me in celebrating a historic milestone — in October, Malawi became the first nation in southern Africa to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem.

Trachoma is a bacterial infection that causes severe swelling and scarring of the eyelids and is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. As recently as 2015, 7.6 million people in Malawi were at risk from this disease but now this threat has been removed from our land. I wish to pay particular tribute to our partners and the friends of Malawi who supported our efforts in fighting trachoma.

Our success in eliminating trachoma comes hot on the heels of another elimination success. Two years ago, in 2020, we also eliminated lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes which leads to disfiguring swelling and disability.

Both trachoma and lymphatic filariasis are neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a group of 20 diseases and conditions that cause immeasurable suffering and affect more than 1 billion people worldwide. These diseases disproportionately affect those living in rural areas, such as Vainesi, and often trap affected individuals in cycles of poverty.

Today, 30 January, as countries across the globe commemorate World NTD Day 2023, I would like to reaffirm Malawi’s commitment to ending the burden of these diseases in our country and improving the quality of life of our citizens. 

And I am so proud of what we have accomplished so far. Many children will be able to go to school and achieve their full potential. Malawi’s 2063 vision of a wealthy, industrialised, inclusive and self-reliant nation, able to stand tall among nations, will be fully realised.

It will take healthy people who can participate fully in economic development to make this a reality. Investing in NTD elimination programmes creates a ripple effect in society. It leads to better education, health and employment outcomes, and transforms lives and communities. 

Individuals like Vainesi, who is no longer housebound and unable to see, are a powerful example of how incredible this transformation can be. This is why it is important that preventable diseases, that limit the potential of individuals to play an active role as proud citizens, be eliminated.

The return on investment that we’ve seen in fighting these diseases has been both robust and far-reaching. These same health systems are now being leveraged to deliver steady progress against several other NTDs, including river blindness and schistosomiasis.  

What we now know is that progress fighting one NTD accelerates progress fighting others, building momentum and generating results. Of the 20 NTDs in existence, only six are present in Malawi today.

Other countries in Africa are also seeing great success using this approach. In August, Togo celebrated eliminating an amazing four NTDs since 2011 — trachoma, lymphatic filariasis, human African trypanosomiasis and Guinea worm disease.

However, there is still much work to be done — particularly in Southern Africa. An estimated 190 million people require treatment for at least one NTD among the 16 member states that comprise the Southern African Development Community (SADC). 

Malawi is the only SADC country to have eliminated an NTD and the Covid-19 pandemic has threatened hard-earned progress. Concerted action is needed to fight against NTDs and prevent future health threats from unravelling years of progress.

But my message is one of hope — and of the importance of accountability and making a commitment. This is why I was proud to lead my country, Malawi, in endorsing the Kigali Declaration on NTDs — a high-level, political declaration which is helping mobilise political will and secure commitments against NTDs — joining Botswana, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Uganda and Vanuatu.

The theme of World NTD Day 2023 includes an important message: “Act now. Act together. Invest in NTDs.” I would like to see the names of all the countries in SADC on this list. When nations work together to lead NTD elimination efforts, we can accomplish so much. Today, I am calling on heads of state in southern Africa to endorse the Kigali Declaration on NTDs — and commit to its delivery.

We are 100% committed to ending NTDs. Join us in committing to building a healthier, happier future.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.