Trachoma is one of the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, affecting populations prone to poverty and with limited access to clean water and sanitation. While the disease is primarily transmitted through contact with the infected person’s eye discharge, it can also be carried through flies. As a bacterial infection, trachoma causes scarring on the inside of an eyelid and repeated exposure can eventually lead to trichiasis, when the eyelids turn inwards. The impacts of trichiasis over time – eyelashes scraping against the cornea each time the eye blinks – leads to blindness.
This devastating disease is most commonly found in poor communities, often in Africa and Asia. However, in a recent publication discussing the need for elimination and control of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), including trachoma, Sabin president Dr. Peter Hotez and his co-authors stressed the high rates of disease burden in the Oceania region (Australia and the Pacific Islands).
In an interview with Girish Sawlani of ABC Radio Australia, Dr. Hotez discussed the unexpectedly high rate of NTDs within populous and poor regions in Oceania, such as Papua New Guinea and the Aboriginal populations in Australia. He compared his concern for the “hidden burden of disease” to the exposure of NTDs in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. Trachoma currently impacts approximately 41 million people across 57 different countries that don’t have access to proper resources or knowledge that would assist in reducing exposure to the disease.
In spite of the highly endemic situation, strides have been made to control or even eliminate trachoma across various platforms. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been using a comprehensive public health strategy, better known as SAFE, to treat trachoma patients through a combination of surgery (S), antibiotics (A), facial cleanliness (F) and environmental educational efforts (E). In Australia, professor of indigenous eye health at Melbourne University, Hugh Taylor, has further encouraged research and action against trachoma. Taylor estimates that trachoma and related blindness can be “virtually eliminated in five years” with access to appropriate funds in Australia.
The cooperation between organizations working to control trachoma in the Oceanic region and government aid figures will play a critical role in not only improving health concerns, but also addressing issues regarding the economy and social action. AusAID is currently working with organizations, such as the Fred Hollows Foundation, to strengthen partnerships and stimulate research and action in order to bring an end to the spread of trachoma in the region.