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Meet Belay Bayissasse: On the Frontlines of Trachoma Control in Ethiopia

"He has hair in his eye," a community volunteer told trichiasis surgeon Belay Bayissasse in 2006.

For Bayissasse, now the Trachoma Control Program officer for The Carter Center in Ethiopia, it was a familiar phrase he heard while working at a local health clinic in the Amhara region. Clinicians and community volunteers in Amhara, an area that bears the brunt of the worldwide trachoma burden, know this is a symptom of advanced trachoma.

Trachoma is an eye infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. The phrase "hair in the eye" refers to the painful advanced stage of the disease, called trichiasis, when the eyelid turns inward after repeated infections scar the inner eyelid. Once the eyelid has inverted, the eyelashes scratch the cornea, becoming so painful that patients often use small instruments, such as tweezers, to pluck out their eyelashes for temporary relief. Left untreated, trichiasis can lead to irreversible blindness.

  • Patients wait outside a clinic in Amhara, Ethiopia, after receiving free Carter Center-supported eye surgery for trichiasis, the painful advanced stage of trachoma that causes eye damage and can lead to permanent blindness. (Photo: The Carter Center/ K. Callahan)

After learning where the patient lived, Bayissasse walked for an hour through hilly terrain, carrying his medical bag full of sterilized surgical instruments and accompanied by an armed guard due to security issues in the region.

At the home of the patient, a man in his late fifties, Bayissasse set up a surgical station underneath a tree outside. With no health clinic nearby to perform the surgery, the outdoors provided better light and a more sanitized environment than the small home.

Because the disease was caught early, the surgery was successful. And for years, Bayissasse said, the villager would stop by the clinic to thank him for relieving his pain and restoring his sight.

This experience was one of many that led Bayissasse to continue his work to help people in his community. As part of his health clinic training, he went door to door and met people suffering from health conditions, such as trachoma, that are often associated with poverty.

  • Bayissasse's early experience tackling trachoma as a surgeon in Amhara, Ethiopia, motivated him to pursue a career in public health. Here, Bayissasse (left) shares trachoma prevention information with a local herder. (Photo: The Carter Center)

One factor contributing to the spread of trachoma is the lack of latrines in villages. Without a nearby latrine and education on the importance of using them, many villagers live close to exposed human waste. This waste becomes a breeding ground for eye-seeking flies that carry bacteria from person to person. The bacteria can also be spread by direct person-to-person contact and shared cloths and towels. Young children and women harbor the greatest burden of the disease.

After working with trachoma patients, Bayissasse became a health science teacher and worked in public health with nongovernmental organizations.

In 2014, he was appointed the Trachoma Program officer for The Carter Center in Ethiopia. He also recently graduated with a Master of Public Health degree from Mekelle University.

Bayissasse sees progress in the region and enjoys helping the Carter Center team promote awareness of trachoma and educate the community about the SAFE strategy interventions, such as facial cleanliness and using latrines.

He is grateful to be able to work in an area that combines his skills, surgical experience, and personal interest to help prevent blinding trachoma in Ethiopia.

Smiling broadly, he says, "I am living my dream."

Related Resources
Learn more about the Center's Trachoma Control Program
Learn more about the Center's health work in Ethiopia

The Carter Center works with the Ethiopian government, local communities in Amhara region, and partners to implement the World Health Organization-endorsed SAFE strategy to fight trachoma: Surgery, Antibiotics, Face washing and hygiene education, and Environmental improvement.

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