By Fiona Ritchie:
This week, we welcome Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex on a three-day visit to Malawi to celebrate with the Malawian government and partners the huge steps taken over the last decade to eliminate blinding trachoma.
On behalf of the British Royal Family and as former Vice President of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, the Countess will meet His Excellency President Lazarus Chakwera to celebrate Malawi’s remarkable achievements.
The Countess will also visit Salima District to see first-hand how the national trachoma elimination programme has benefitted the people of Malawi, and to understand how the Ministry of Health and key partner Sightsavers have worked together to stop the spread of trachoma.
She will also visit Kamuzu Central Hospital to see the work of the Ophthalmology Department in tackling blindness and to understand how other UK-Aid funded programmes, such as the oxygen plant built during the time of Covid response programmes, have improved healthcare for many Malawians.
Trachoma is one of the twenty diseases classed as ‘neglected tropical diseases’ and is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness. Predominant in areas with chronic water shortages and poor sanitation, trachoma starts off as a bacterial infection like conjunctivitis. It is easily treatable through antibiotics. However, if left untreated, the disease can lead to permanent blindness.
Trachoma has ravaged Malawi for decades but, last month, the World Health Organisation declared that Malawi had eliminated trachoma as a public health problem.
Malawi is the first country in southern Africa to achieve this significant milestone.
The legacy of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust – established in 2012 by Commonwealth Heads of State to support the elimination of trachoma – is that 11 million people who were previously at risk of losing their sight to trachoma are now no longer at risk, including millions in Malawi.
This achievement teaches us useful lessons for the future. Building strong, inclusive, and resilient healthcare service delivery systems is critical to ensuring all Malawians can access the medicines and care they need to prevent and treat these diseases.
Strong healthcare service delivery systems can prevent a resurgence of diseases that have been eliminated and ensure that Malawi’s healthcare service delivery system can cope with any remaining cases as part of routine healthcare.
At the heart of the UK’s approach to global health is our work to build resilient and inclusive national health systems, led by, and in partnership with, governments. We help to develop quality and affordable community and primary health services that reach vulnerable people and we support systems that can spot and respond quickly to new diseases. This is essential for realising both universal health coverage and better health security for communities, as well as helping them to be more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate.
We have learned that constructive partnerships are the only truly successful way of harnessing the collective effort needed to deliver essential healthcare services to all communities.
The elimination of trachoma in Malawi is a fantastic example of cross-sectoral and multi-partner working – from the training of surgeons, to mass drug administration, and the environmental improvements and behaviour changes that enable access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. And, of course, all of this helps reduce transmission of a broad range of diseases.
The UK was proud to endorse the Kigali Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases at this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings in Rwanda.
We will continue to invest in research and development for diseases that cause death and disability.
And through our development assistance, the UK will keep building on the legacy of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust and work in collaboration with our partners to strengthen Malawi’s healthcare service delivery system and improve the health of all Malawians.
*The author is British High Commissioner to Malawi