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Profile: Paul Emerson Fly Expert Tackles Trachoma in Africa

Growing up in England, Dr. Paul Emerson dreamed of becoming a scientist and an educator, the kind of individual who would have both the technical knowledge and practical skills to show people how to better their lives. That dream led him first to teach in England and Africa, then to become a medical entomologist, and now to The Carter Center, which he joined three years ago as director of the Trachoma Control Program. "My specialty is the humble house fly and the diseases it transmits," he said. One of the worst of these is trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eyes.

Trachoma infects some 84 million people, primarily in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The disease cripples - and ultimately blinds - hard-working people living on the edge of survival, leaving them dependent on others for care and impeding the economic development of their countries. Some 7 million people are blind today because of trachoma. And yet, said Dr. Emerson, the ailment is easy to prevent via a combination of education and control.

"Education is the key to empowering people," he said. "If you can get people to say, 'It doesn't have to be like this; my children don't have to go blind,' then they'll change their behaviors." Working to control trachoma makes good sense, said Dr. Emerson. "The disease can be controlled with several simple tools," he explained. "We don't need to tell people to wait - that sometime in the future we'll have a vaccine or miracle drug. There are steps they can take now."

Controlling trachoma is largely a matter of improving hygiene. The diseaseis spread via a fly called Musca sorbens, which breeds in human feces lying on the ground. Flies transmit the blinding ailment when they land on peoples' eyes. But, happily, the flies do not breed in pit latrines. "That's the first step, building covered latrines," said Dr. Emerson, whose previous research in The Gambia demonstrated the importance of simple, covered pit toilets in trachoma control. People also can be infected via bacteria-contaminated fingers, towels, and sheets. "That means villagers also need to learn the importance of washing their hands and faces and of refraining from sharing towels and sheets," he said. "None of this is glamorous, but it works, and people don't suffer the pain of trachoma or lose their eyesight. And that transforms peoples' lives."

Dr. Emerson regards the local villagers who are putting this knowledge into practice as "true heroes." "These villagers aren't being paid for what they do," he said. "They want to help because they don't want their children to get sick. We're merely giving them the knowledge they need" through on-site trachoma volunteers. And people have embraced this knowledge. By the end of 2008, villagers in six African countries will have built 500,000 latrines by hand - fostering a new generation that will never know the devastating effects of trachoma.

Support the Carter Center's Trachoma Control Program now. Click here to donate >

Photo of children greeting Dr. Paul Emerson
All Photos: Carter Center/ L. Gubb

Children greet Dr. Paul Emerson in Ethiopia.

Photo of Dr. Paul Emerson, Nazeed Fusheini, and a Ghanain woman discussing her family's latrine.

Dr. Paul Emerson (center); Nazeed Fusheini, Carter Center field officer for trachoma; and a Ghanaian woman discuss her family's latrine.

Learn more about the Carter Center's Trachoma Control Program >

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