Ronni Ancona on Comic Relief: ‘To be able to bring eye care to an isolated community is a huge achievement’
As Red Nose Day comes round again on 15 March, I am taken back to 2011 when I took part in a five-day challenge alongside eight other celebrities for Comic Relief, raising funds for the international development organisation, Sightsavers. When we returned from our 100km trek across the north Kenyan desert, I wrote a blog for the Independent about the challenge.
I must have done something right during the gruelling trek over mountains, through bush and across vast expanses of desert plane in temperatures as high as 100 degrees fahrenheit.
The physical challenge of the trek itself felt like an incredible achievement for us all, but meeting some of the people who were suffering with often painful and blinding eye conditions, helped to put our blisters and dehydration into perspective. It reminded us of why we had agreed to take part in the trek in the first place.
One day we visited an eye clinic and we saw for ourselves the kind of work the organisation is doing in Masarbit. Dozens of Samburu, who are the local tribe living in this dry and arid land, came to have their sight tested and get treatment for trachoma and cataract. The treatments included handing out antibiotic eye ointment, which clears up the trachoma infection, a common condition in Kenya where there is a lot of dust, and clean water for face-washing is scarce. When trachoma gets to more advanced stages, eyelashes turn inwards and scratch the eye ball, like needles. Those who had the later stages of trachoma were signed up for surgery, to turn their eyelids out again and prevent blindness, at the eye camp set up at the end of the trek.
Many people with cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens, which if left untreated can cause complete sight loss, were also booked in to have surgery. It takes just 20 minutes and costs around £28 to remove a cataract and give someone back their sight. Not a lot of money for us in the UK, but completely inaccessible for people living in some of the poorest countries in the world.
When we finished after five days and 107 kilometres, it was total euphoria. A group of schoolchildren sang for us and it was very emotional. Word had got out about the clinic, and seeing the throngs of people being treated by doctors and nurses was just fantastic. I don’t know how many people were there, but it seems to me there were well over 200, many of whom had walked for miles to be there. Seeing the gift of sight being returned to people is the richest reward you can imagine after such a long, hard journey and I think we all felt extremely moved by this day.
I’ve been told that this year Comic Relief will feature, among other issues, a group of diseases known as Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). These are a group of 17 really horrible diseases, two of which – river blindness and trachoma – are potentially blinding.
Comic Relief will feature seven of the 17 NTDs. Without support or treatment, for many people, blindness from cataract or trachoma may mean they can’t work or care for their families. The effects of all NTDs can have a similar impact. Despite one in six people in the world suffering with an NTD programmes to fight them are currently not as well resourced financially as other debilitating illnesses, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Although we are well on the way to eliminating river blindness and trachoma, there is still much to be done, which is why the work of Comic Relief, Sightsavers and other NGOs’ battling to eliminate all seven of these NTDs is so important.
Since the trek team and I visited Kenya, the £1.3 million we helped to raise has been spent well. To be able to bring such desperately needed eye care and sanitation facilities to a community, once almost entirely cut off from any type of health care, is a huge achievement that I am immensely proud to have been a part of. This goes to show what just one organisation can do with the money raised through Comic Relief, so I urge you all to make sure you support this year’s campaign. Laugh at the silly things celebrities and people across the country are doing this week, but please also support them with your cash. A little bit of money can go a very long way.comic relief
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