1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 150, Issue 176

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Blindness and Vision Loss

Inquiry—Debate Continued

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Seth, calling the attention of the Senate to the increasing rates of blindness and vision loss in Canada and the strategies to prevent further vision loss.

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, I would like to thank Senator Seth for bringing up the inquiry on the subject of blindness. It gives me the opportunity to speak about blindness in the rest of the world, particularly in Africa. Trachoma is a highly contagious and blinding disease that occurs in 57 countries and destroys the lives of 40 million people. Globally, trachoma costs 2.1 billion euros in lost income. This is unnecessary as trachoma is easy to treat and prevent with the right medicines and hygiene rules.

Overall, Africa is the most affected continent with 27.8 million cases of active trachoma. Roughly half of the global burden of active trachoma is concentrated in five countries: Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Uganda and Sudan.

Trachoma is one of the many so-called neglected diseases in the tropics, which dozens of non-governmental organizations are currently fighting throughout the world.

Pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, have donated over 145 million doses for trachoma control, but even with donations, the cost is too high for some of the poorest in the world to be treated. Worldwide, every four minutes one person experiences severe sight loss, and every four hours four people become blind.

I want to start by telling you the story of Mrs. Alehegn. Mrs. Alehegn was a strong young woman when she started to develop trachoma, or “hair in the eye,” as it is known in East Africa.

The pain made it impossible for her to cook over smoky dung fires, hike to distant wells for water or work in dusty fields — the essential duties of a wife. The disease caused her relationship with her husband to deteriorate until he left her for a healthy woman. “When I stopped getting up in the morning to do the housecleaning, when I stopped helping with the farm work, we started fighting.”

For 15 years, Mrs. Alehegn suffered. Every blink of the eye would feel like thorns scraping her eyes. She would pluck the hairs of her in-turned eyelids, only to have them grow back more coarse and more debilitating. With the help of her daughter, she persevered until she could scrounge up enough money from her meager income to get the surgery. For 15 years, she needlessly suffered to overcome a disease that is preventable and treatable.

When Mrs. Alehegn’s ex-husband was asked why he left her, he said that he, too, had begun to develop “hair in the eye.” He too had been forced to stop working. If they had not separated, they would have both become completely blind and died. A hard-working wife would provide him the income he needed to be able to afford the life-saving surgery. “If we had not been sick,” he said sadly, “we would have raised our children together.”

The World Health Organization estimates that with the right help, trachoma can be eradicated by 2020.

Honourable senators, our government, our country and Canadians can be part of eradicating this debilitating disease. Thank you.

(On motion of Senator D. Smith, debate adjourned.)