The OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) has awarded The Carter Center a grant of US$800,000 to help support an initiative to eliminate blinding trachoma in Mali and Niger.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; Ambassador (ret.) Mary Ann Peters, the Center’s CEO; and Dr. Walid Mehalaine, head of OFID’s Grants and Technical Assistance Unit, gathered Friday, March 24, for a signing ceremony at The Carter Center in Atlanta. Dr. Mehalaine represented Mr. Suleiman Al-Herbish, Director-General of OFID.

An outdoor examination of a woman’s right eye, looking for symptoms of trachoma/CDC
An outdoor examination of a woman’s right eye, looking for symptoms of trachoma/CDC

“This support is deeply appreciated and will improve health for many people as we strive for the elimination of blinding trachoma as a public health problem in Mali and Niger,” said President Carter, founder of The Carter Center, which has been a leader in the fight against trachoma for two decades.

Including this grant, OFID has given The Carter Center $3 million since 1997 to support multiple public health programs.

“I commend the Carter Center for its leading role in the battle against neglected tropical diseases such as blinding trachoma and Guinea worm,” Al-Herbish stated. “Eliminating and treating preventable diseases is particularly important in the fight against poverty. Since 1997, cooperation between our organizations has been very beneficial. OFID values this partnership and looks forward to deepening it in these and other areas of mutual interest.”

Trachoma, caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. Evidence of it can be traced to as early as 8,000 B.C. It affects millions of people in communities that lack access to clean water and sanitation.

The Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program has worked with the Mali and Niger National Trachoma Programs to implement the full World Health Organization SAFE strategy since 1999. SAFE is an acronym for Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial cleanliness, and Environmental improvement.

To date in Mali and Niger, The Carter Center has facilitated 94,919 surgeries, distributed more than 4 million doses of antibiotics through surgical activities and mass drug administration, provided more than 4,000 villages with health education (including the importance of facial cleanliness to ward off flies), supported the construction of 219,947 latrines, and trained and equipped 10,084 masons in Mali and Niger.

The three-year project supported by the OFID grant will enable the program to do even more to eliminate blinding trachoma in those countries by 2020, including the provision of free corrective surgeries to around 36,000 individuals, distribution of antibiotic eye ointment, promotion of hygiene campaigns, and the construction of latrines to limit fly populations. Also planned are support to national programs, health education training for an estimated 9,500 health workers, community leaders, women’s groups and school personnel, and research in support of the global trachoma program. The elimination of blinding trachoma is in line with OFID’s mission to eradicate all forms of poverty in partner countries, particularly the least developed countries, and its support to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals agenda (SDG3).

“It’s gratifying to have generous partners like OFID join us in the effort to eliminate blinding trachoma in West Africa and elsewhere,” Peters said. “Strong, dependable partners allow us to keep advancing against this horrifying disease among impoverished populations.”

A recently announced $5.1 million Conrad N. Hilton Foundation challenge grant to The Carter Center will match the OFID grant dollar-for-dollar, effectively doubling the impact of the gift.

Infections often begin in early childhood. Multiple infections can eventually cause inflammation and scarring of the inner eyelid, which leads to trachomatous trichiasis, the painful, blinding stage of trachoma in which the eyelashes turn inward and scratch the surface of the eyeball. A simple outpatient surgical procedure can relieve pain and, if done early enough, reverse the condition.

“Women and children are disproportionately affected by trachoma because of their frequent close contact,” said Kelly Callahan, director of the Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program. “Infected secretions from the child’s nose and eyes get on the mother’s hands and clothing; when she happens to touch her own eye, the mother becomes infected.”

Trachoma can be found in over 50 countries, most in Africa and the Middle East, and a few countries in the Americas and Asia. Globally, 200 million people are at risk for trachoma, and over 3.2 million are at immediate risk for blindness from trichiasis. Although trachoma is easily preventable, more than 2 million of the world’s poorest people are blind today because they did not have access to eyelid surgery or prevention strategies. The disease is responsible for an estimated annual productivity loss of up to $8 billion