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Fighting Disease through Collaborative Action

Kelly Callahan November 09, 2020
Photo credit: The Carter Center/Caroline Joe*

As of late, the world is experiencing a dangerous public health crisis. The (coronavirus) COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically highlighted the health inequities that have challenged health practitioners for decades. We are witnessing people in lower socioeconomic standing struggle to acquire proper healthcare and the general health education needed to keep their families and communities safe.

Yet, as a result of this pandemic, I have also witnessed a unique coming together. Governments, ministries of health, pharmaceutical companies and philanthropic organizations have fused as a collective force, shining a bit of hope on these dark times.

Collaborative action is the secret to success in the fight against public health scourges. Communication, coordination, and teamwork are essential to enacting real change and shifting the health trajectory of an entire community. While the coronavirus has dampened my spirits over the past few months, I have been deeply inspired by the bridges that have been built between diverse members of the public health community to fight a common enemy.

Confronting and fighting preventable blindness
I am honored to serve as director of the Trachoma Control Program at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, a role in which I collaborate daily with corporate and foundation partners, community volunteers and the ministries of health in African countries to treat millions of people every year.

Two children in Gondar Zone, Amhara Region, Ethiopia, wash their faces as part of community-driven trachoma control practices

Two children in Gondar Zone, Amhara Region, Ethiopia, wash their faces as part of community-driven trachoma control practices (July 2020). Photo credit: The Carter Center/Emily Staub

Trachoma is a bacterial eye infection found in communities lacking access to basic hygiene, clean water and adequate sanitation. Trachoma is the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world, yet it is easily prevented with a readily-available antibiotic, and its effects can often be halted with a short surgical procedure. For more than 20 years, The Carter Center has helped lead the charge against trachoma, but it is not alone.

LCIF and The Carter Center’s enduring partnership
When I first started working for The Carter Center, I was deeply inspired by President Carter, a proud Lion since 1953 and his passion for Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF). I became acquainted with LCIF’s mission to “support the efforts of Lions clubs and partners in serving communities locally and globally, giving hope and impacting lives through humanitarian service projects and grants.” In 2017, I became a member of Lions Clubs International, and it has quickly become an integral part of my service-oriented career.

Since 1994, LCIF, through its SightFirst Program, has approved more than 60 grants totaling over US$67 million for The Carter Center in support of the Center’s vision-related initiatives addressing trachoma and river blindness (a parasitic infection that is spread by the bites of infected black flies that breed in rivers and can cause eye disease that often leads to permanent blindness) throughout Africa and the Americas. This partnership is one of the most enduring and impactful collaborations in the Center’s history.

Okechukwu Obodo lost his sight from river blindness 15 years ago.

Okechukwu Obodo lost his sight from river blindness 15 years ago. He lives on his own with help from neighbors in Ogonogoeji Ndiuno community, Nkanu West LGA, Enugu State, Nigeria. Photo credit: The Carter Center/Ruth McDowall

Collaborative achievements and COVID-19 response
Through LCIF’s generous support, The Carter Center has been fortunate to celebrate many public health achievements, including:

  • Improving quality of life and healthcare for people living in seven countries across Africa and six countries in the Americas.
  • Providing more than 189 million antibiotic treatments to address trachoma.
  • Performing over 820,000 sight-saving trichiasis surgeries in our focus countries.
  • Building 3.3 million latrines to protect citizens against further trachoma infection.
  • Protecting 6.8 million people by delivering more than 257 million river blindness treatments.

In 2019 alone, the Lions-Carter Center partnership impacted 10.2 million people through river blindness initiatives and 15 million people through trachoma-related efforts.

The Carter Center and LCIF’s collaborative work continues amidst the pandemic, with appropriate precautions being taken to prevent introduction and transmission of COVID-19. Face masks, personal protective equipment, consistent hand washing and social distancing, as applicable, are being implemented during all program activities, including mass drug administration. We continue to monitor all activities with the goals of decreasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission associated with our efforts and strengthening local health systems’ capacity.

The best defense is a collective global effort
This year, more than ever, The Carter Center is proud to have dedicated supporters, like LCIF, to ensure our work can continue amid other public health concerns.

In 1996, when I left home to become a Peace Corps volunteer, I wanted to positively affect the life of one person. Little did I know I would become part of a collective global effort that has shifted the trajectory of millions of people around the world. And it is with great certainty that I can celebrate such achievements because of the many people who have collaborated with me and with us along the way! I could never have known the power of partnership and collaboration without so many others.

LCIF and The Carter Center believe in the power of collaborative action. No single organization can hope to eliminate river blindness or trachoma or stop COVID-19. This fight involves more than providing access to clean water, surgeries or medications. This battle is one of human rights; it is a bridge for peace. Millions are free from trachoma and river blindness thanks in part to the Center’s collaborative efforts with LCIF.

Learn more about the Lions-Carter Center SightFirst program partnership history.

*A Lions Clubs International leadership delegation visited The Carter Center in late 2019, meeting with U.S. President Jimmy Carter (not pictured), and The Carter Center’s Kelly Callahan, director of the Trachoma Control Program, and Frank Richards, director of the River Blindness Elimination Program.

Kelly Callahan oversees the Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted communities around the world in different ways. To ensure we’re serving safely wherever we live, Lions should follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization or local health authorities. Visit our Serving Safely page for resources that can help you safely serve your community.