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WHO on Track to Eliminate Blinding Trachoma by 2020

More than 80 public health experts say great progress has been made towards eliminating trachoma by 2020. The experts, who have just wrapped up a week-long conference at the World Health Organization, are calling on governments to implement WHO's proven strategy for eliminating trachoma.

There were 360 million cases of blinding trachoma in 1985 when the World Health Organization began its global campaign to eliminate this disease. Now, there are 80 million cases.

WHO says trachoma affects the poorest, most neglected isolated people in the world. They live in remote rural areas of 56 countries on almost all continents in the world. Two-thirds of these countries are in Africa.

The head of WHO's Trachoma Program, Silvio Mariotti, says blindness from trachoma can be prevented by applying WHO's so-called SAFE Strategy. He says SAFE is an acronym in which "S" stands for lid surgery and "A" stands for antibiotics used to treat the infection.

"F is for facial cleanliness and is the behavioral attitude that is known for being the most effective in stopping the transmission of the disease. And, E stands for environmental improvement ... It is a way of telling the community that overall hygiene and cleanliness and good management of waste is the best way to get away with the disease forever," he said.

Trachoma is an eye infection that is spread from person to person. Infections often begin in early childhood and become chronic. If left untreated, these infections ultimately lead to irreversible blindness, usually between the ages of 30 and 40. Women are blinded two to three times more often than men, probably because they are in close contact with affected children.

The disease flourishes in very poor, unsanitary, overcrowded households.

Dr. Mariotti says when these conditions are improved, trachoma, as well as other diseases that thrive in the same environment, disappear. He says a blind person is a serious burden on the family, on the economy and on the development of a community.

"In many countries of Africa, every single person that is blind is normally assigned a child to guide this person throughout the day. This child is one that will not get opportunity to get an education. This child will not go to school. There are a series of effects that such an impairment can bring in a community and in a family that are avoided if this blindness is prevented," he said.

Dr. Mariotti says the SAFE strategy is simple and cost-effective. He says lid surgery is easy and is usually done by nurses in the village. He says the antibiotics used to treat the infection are donated by the Pfizer Pharmaceutical company.

As for the facial and environmental components of the strategy, he says all this takes is education and the replacement of bad hygienic habits with good ones.