How do you solve a problem like trachoma?

Trachoma is a preventable disease that can lead to blindness. The Carter Centre is leading the fight to drive it out of the world’s poorest regions

Imagine a piercing pain every time you blink.

That's the reality of trachoma, the world's leading cause of infectious blindness; a bacterial infection transported person to person by flies, and any other form of contact. A terrible affliction, the infection causes inflammation and turns the eyelids inwards, causing the eyelashes to scratch and scrape the cornea like knives. Slowly, painfully, it causes irreversible blindness.

Sufferers often wear homemade tweezers around their necks, not as jewellery but to pluck away the sharp lashes causing them constant pain. It offers only momentary relief, as the new lashes grow back sharper and more uncomfortable than ever.

Last weekend, I attended President and Mrs Carter's 'Carter Center weekend' in Lake Tahoe, a closed gathering of family, friends and supporters of the Carter Center's remarkable work, motto: 'waging peace, fighting disease, bringing hope'.

President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are nothing short of amazing. Their passion and commitment to good, to making the world a better place, their unstinting energy and their resolve, are humbling for everyone around them, and encourage us all to play our part too in any way we can.

During the weekend, Kelly Callahan, director of the Carter Center's trachoma programme gave a moving talk about their efforts to stamp out this debilitating but preventable infection.

The centre’s health programmes focus on fighting neglected tropical diseases (NTD's), such as guinea worm and river blindness. It aims to eliminate trachoma by 2020: a disease of poverty, and one seen more in children, and women, who are twice as liable to contract the infection. According to World Health Organisation data, the disease is a public health problem in 42 countries, with nearly 182 million people at risk of trachoma blindness. It is responsible for the blindness of visual impairment of about 1.9 million people.

In the late 1990s, the Carter Center took aim as this disease and has led the way since. President Carter went personally to persuade Pfizer to donate the antibiotic Zithromax, which prevents and treats trachoma, and in the 18 years since, the pharma giant has joined with the centre to administer 157 million doses.

The war on trachoma did not stop with the delivery of medication. The center has been responsible for 681,000 surgeries to prevent blindness, relatively simple 20-minute surgery costing $35-$40 a go, but transforming the lives of everyone afflicted. Some 250,000 of these surgeries have been on women.

The center has led education around trachoma prevention and cleanliness in the worst affected areas in the world, and built nearly 3.5 million latrines - in doing so reducing the number of flies that carry the bacteria to such deadly effect. This weekend, the President said wryly that one of the things he would be remembered for, was being 'the biggest toilet builder in the world.’

"These diseases are called 'neglected' for a reason”The Carter Center took on the fight against trachoma in Amhara, Ethiopia, way back in 2001, where the infection is at its most intense. The team has beaten inaccessible roads, as well as the rain.

In 2016 alone they were responsible for 111,000 sight-saving surgeries. Every five minutes someone received surgery, Kelly Callahan told us.

In addition to the education about trachoma prevention, they also administered 17 million doses of Zithromax in Amhara alone last year, and built 589,000 latrines, reducing the flies, fighting the disease. In 2001, trachoma was prevalent in 61 per cent of the population. Today that figure is 24 per cent and, while there is some way to go to the 5 per cent target, huge progress has been made.

Ethiopia is just one country in which the Carter Center is operationally active waging its campaign to eradicate trachoma. Add in Mali, Niger and South Sudan, among others, all places where safety and security issues make the humane battle so much harder.

Kelly Callahan was moved to tears telling the audience about the commitment of President and Mrs Carter, and the meaningfulness and impact of her work. And the audience were moved too. So much so that John Hussman from the Hussman Family Foundation pledged $500,000 there and then and starting a matching grant: plenty of others followed.

The money is needed because the programme is always underfunded. “These diseases are called 'neglected' for a reason,” Kelly said, referring to the centre’s wider work on NTDs.

“We are not afraid of failure if we think the end goal is worth it,” President Carter told me.