By Opija Raduk

The number of people at risk of trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, has dropped by more than 90 percent since 2002, according to new statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Back in 2002 there were about 1.5 billion people worldwide at risk of trachoma. However, data presented at a conference in Mozambique indicates that this has fallen to just over 142 million people.

“This is a great progress, but we cannot afford to become complacent,” says Dr Anthony Solomon, Medical Officer in charge of WHO’s global trachoma elimination programme.

“We should be able to relegate trachoma to the history books in the next few years, but we will only do so by redoubling our efforts now,” adds Dr Solomon.

Dr Solomon presented the figures at the 22nd meeting of the WHO alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by 2020 (GET2020), which took place in Mozambique.

According to WHO, trachoma is a disease of the eye caused by infection with the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. The infection is transmitted by direct or indirect transfer of eye and nose discharges of infected people, particularly young people who harbour the principal reservoir of infection. These discharges are spread by particular species of flies.

After years of repeated infection, the inside of the eyelid can become so severely scarred that it turns inwards and causes the eyelashes to rub against the eyeball, resulting in constant pain and light intolerance, this and other alterations of the eye can lead to scarring of the cornea. If left untreated, this condition leads to blindness.

WHO says that in areas where trachoma is endemic, active trachoma is common among preschool-aged children, with prevalence rates which can be as high as 60-90 percent. Infection becomes less frequent and shorter in duration with increasing age.

Moreover, infection is usually acquired when living in close proximity to others with active disease, and the family is the main setting for transmission. An individual’s immune system can clear a single episode of infection, but in endemic communities, reacquisition of the organism occurs frequently.

The released statistics also show that the number of people needing surgery for advanced blinding trachoma, trichiasis, dropped from 7.6 million in 2002 to 2.5 million in 2019. This is a decline of 68 percent.

These achievements are as a result of global collaboration between international organisations such as Sightsavers, communities, governments and donors working together to deliver large scale treatment for trachoma through the WHO-endorsed SAFE strategy. The acronym stands for surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environmental improvements, all of which are used to fight the disease.

Since 2011, eight countries have been validated by WHO as having eliminated trachoma as a public health problem. At least one country in every trachoma-endemic WHO Region has now achieved this milestone, demonstrating the effectiveness of the SAFE strategy in different settings.

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