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NGO Tackles Leading Cause of Blindness, Trachoma

  • Kim Lewis

Dr. Amir Bedri examining a trachoma patient

Dr. Amir Bedri examining a trachoma patient

A European non-profit is launching new efforts to combat blindness in three African countries where some of the world’s highest rates of trachoma are found.

As part of their global strategy to eliminate trachoma, the European-based confederation, Light for the World, is increasing its activities in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Mozambique.

The organization is stepping up measures in these three countries to implement the World Health Organization’s recommended strategy to control trachoma -- SAFE, an acronym that stands for surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness & environmental sanitation.

“Trachoma is the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world. Approximately 229 million people live in trachoma endemic areas and are at risk of infection. Trachoma affects about 21.4 million people of whom about 2.2 million are visually impaired and 1.2 million are blind,” says Dr. Amir Bedri Kello, an ophthalmologist and senior advisor for Light for the World.

Trachoma is an infectious disease that is endemic to remote and poverty-stricken areas of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, he says. Bedri is the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness co-chair for Eastern Africa and an Ethiopian expert on the disease.

A disease that starts in childhood

“It’s actually a bacterial infection that happens in early childhood,” Bedri says. “When children get repeated infections during their childhood, it will lead to scarification of the inner side of the upper eyelids, which would lead later on to contraction, inward turning of the eyelashes that in turn rub on the cornea resulting in a painful condition leading to blindness if not treated.”

Trachoma is caused by a bacterium called chlamydia trachomatis and is transmitted through flies, dirty fomites and unclean fingers in places where sanitation is poor. Repeated infections lead to inwards turning of lashes, a condition known as trichiasis that damages the cornea which leads to blindness in adulthood.

Bedri says trachoma can be prevented by promoting personal hygiene and environmental sanitation. A wide spectrum of activities are needed to prevent the disease, including health education, and the promotion of the importance of personal hygiene and a clean environment.

For those suffering from trichiasis, surgery to correct the inward turning of the eye lashes can prevent further damage to the cornea and preserve the patient’s eyesight.

Bedri says combating trachoma requires a long-term commitment to changing daily personal behaviors in communities in order to reduce cases of trachoma.