Talking trachoma with Dr. Paul Courtright and Seva Canada

by Katrina Bouzanis, CNNTD Student and Young Professional Ambassador for NTDs

Part 1 of our Student and Young Professional Ambassador Series Spotlighting Canadian Efforts Against NTDs

In November 2020, I began working with CNNTD as their Student and Young Professional Ambassador, with the mandate of engaging young Canadian voices in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).  For this blog series, I’m speaking to leaders across Canada about their efforts to combat NTDs and the role young people can play in these efforts.

Seva Canada works to restore sight and prevent blindness in underserved communities in low-income countries around the world. Their efforts include prevention and treatment of trachoma, an NTD and the leading infectious cause of blindness. According to the World Health Organization, 137 million people are at risk of blindness due to trachoma. Trachoma is a bacterial infection, often spread between children and caregivers. Repeated infection results in scarring of the eyelid, causing the eyelashes to turn inward and scratch the surface of the eye, resulting in discomfort and corneal damage causing blindness.

In Part 1 of this series, I spoke to Seva Canada Board Member Dr. Paul Courtright about trachoma efforts and his advice for students and young professionals.

What role do you play in global efforts to address trachoma? What does your work entail?

Dr. Paul Courtright presents at a conference (credit: IAPB)

I have several roles.  My primary role is for Sightsavers UK as their Trachoma Technical Lead for trachoma elimination throughout Africa.  I have a team of 11 technical advisors (10 African, 1 Yemeni) who provide on-the-ground support to ministries of health and NGO partners.  The countries include Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, DRC, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Yemen.  I am the Chair of the Board of the Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology (KCCO) and provide support to KCCO for its trachoma elimination activities in Tanzania.  I am also on the board of Seva Canada, providing technical support related to trachoma and other blinding conditions.

What progress are you most proud of and what next steps are you prioritizing in the fight against trachoma?

I am proud of the research to document the excess burden of trachoma on women so that programs could be re-tooled to reach women.  Also, we undertook research on the best approaches to providing trichiasis surgical services (who is best suited to provide surgery, how to reach into communities to find cases, how to organize outreach, etc.). As Director of the KCCO, I was also instrumental in the preparation of global preferred practice guidelines related to mass drug administration, trichiasis surgery, case finding, and leadership strengthening.

Why is it important for Canada to be involved in combating trachoma, or NTDs more generally? Why do you think Canada should invest more in NTDs?

The elimination of trachoma is achievable—already over 10 countries have eliminated trachoma as a public health problem.  Trachoma is a disease of the most disenfranchised in society—the people at the end of the road.  Investing in trachoma now means that people need not go blind in the future and the burden, both in disease and financial impact, will cease to require external support.

How can students and young professionals get involved in global efforts to address trachoma? How do we spread awareness, mobilize governments and engage in change?

The first step, of course, is to become familiar with the disease, approaches to elimination, successes, and failures.  While some countries already are supported to achieve elimination, others such as Egypt, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and others are not.  There are many reasons for the gaps, and students and young professionals should engage governments to address the needs.

Do you have any advice for students and young professionals for getting involved in NTD efforts or acting as advocates?

Advocacy is needed on many different levels.  Because Canada has a strong international presence it might be in a good position to facilitate changes needed in selected countries to prioritize elimination of trachoma.  National leadership is critical to success and the absence of ownership of both the problem and solution leads to years of suffering by the population.


For more information on trachoma and Seva Canada’s work, check out this video.