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Seeking Refuge: Improving the Health of Refugees in Uganda’s West Nile

09/14/2018
Members of a household wait to have their eyes checked by William Azabo, Trachoma Grader, for clinical signs of trachoma.

Members of a household wait to have their eyes checked by William Azabo, Trachoma Grader, for clinical signs of trachoma in Imvepi Refugee Settlement in Arua District, northwestern Uganda. Photo courtesy of USAID, Carly Smith

By Carly Smith | NTD Program Assistant in the U.S Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Global Health, Office of Infectious Disease

From dramatic mountain summits, to flat green plains, to the winding Nile River, Uganda’s West Nile sub-region reveals a tapestry of landscapes. Small villages and towns sprinkle the main road where a myriad of vendors display mangoes, vegetables, and fresh fish for sale on its edge.

The hum of daily life in West Nile obscures an unexpected fact about this region: it hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Bordering the Republic of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the region has seen a vast influx of people seeking shelter and protection from conflict and persecution. Once refugees cross the border, crowded living conditions, limited access to clean water, and poor sanitation in settlements can lead to other threats such as infection and disease.

Recently, I traveled with trachoma and eye specialists from Uganda’s Ministry of Health and RTI International to refugee settlements in northwest Uganda. Over 20 days, the trachoma survey teams split up across 27 settlements to check the eyes of refugees for signs of trachoma, a painful and chronic eye infection that can lead to permanent blindness. Their efforts are part of a new mapping initiative to determine how prevalent neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), such as trachoma, are among refugees in Uganda’s northwest.

Uganda has made incredible progress against NTDs. For example, 11.2 million people are no longer at risk for trachoma. RTI International, through USAID’s NTD Control Program and the ENVISION project, has been a key partner in these efforts, and is now supporting the Ministry of Health’s work to assess burden, and if needed, treat and prevent NTDs among refugees -- a key part of the country’s strategy to eliminate these diseases.

Read the full blog.