Medication, Money and Maps: How to Fight a Debilitating Eye Disease

In some of the world’s remotest corners, health workers armed with smartphones, digital maps and medication are making steady progress in eliminating trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, a leading expert said.

Better living conditions have wiped out trachoma in many countries but some 200 million people are still at risk of contracting the disease, according to the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI).

Trachoma is categorized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a neglected tropical disease (NTD), one of a group of 18 debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses that affect 1.5 billion people, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Efforts to treat trachoma include improving access to clean water and decreasing the number of infected people by treating them with antibiotics.

ITI Director Paul Emerson said antibiotics donation programs, increased government spending, a global mapping project identifying hotspots and the use of smartphones to collect data had been gamechangers in fighting trachoma.

“We know where the disease is, we know what to do about it and where do it,” Emerson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“That may sound simple but we can only reach our goal of eliminating trachoma through a combination of joined-up efforts.”

Trachoma can be prevented in childhood by having facilities for children to wash their faces and if caught soon enough the disease is easily treatable with repeated doses of antibiotics.

Those suffering with an advance stage of the disease, in which the eyelashes turn inward and scrape the cornea, can be treated with simple surgery.

This week, governments and private donors pledged more than $800 million at a meeting in Geneva to accelerate the fight against NTDs.

The Geneva gathering came five years after a meeting in London brought a commitment by the public and private sectors to achieve WHO goals for the control and elimination of NTDs.

Fight Gathers Steam

In 2015, nearly one billion people received treatments donated by pharmaceutical companies for at least one NTD, a 36 percent increase since 2011, the WHO said this week.

The fight against trachoma has also gathered momentum as the number of people at risk dropped by 50 percent in the last six years, while those requiring treatment now stands at 182 million, down from 325 million, according to the ITI.

Emerson said thanks to the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), an effort to document where the disease is endemic, health workers can now say for sure where treatment is needed.

Ethiopia is one of the countries that has made significant strides in fighting trachoma, said Emerson.

The government has included fighting trachoma as a target in its national health plan, provided significant domestic funding, participated in the mapping project and is training doctors to conduct surgeries to correct the effects of trachoma.

Health workers in Ethiopia use smart phones to collect data in the field that are then streamed to an analyst who can call the field team to correct errors in real time, he said.

But despite progress in fighting trachoma and other NTDs, experts agree that drug companies need to step up donations of medicines.

“The challenge now is in reaching the most neglected populations, communities in conflict and in closing the funding gaps,” said Emerson.

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