10 April 2006 With the estimated number of people affected by the infectious eye disease, blinding trachoma, dropping from 360 million people to 80 million over the past 21 years, several more countries are on track to eliminate the scourge, the United Nations health agency announced today.
“This is very encouraging progress,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook told the 10th meeting of the agency’s Alliance for the Global Elimination of Blinding Trachoma (GET 2020) in Geneva. “If countries continue at this rate, the global goal to eliminate blinding trachoma as a public health problem by 2020 can be achieved.”
At the meeting Iran, Mexico, Morocco and Oman reported successfully implementing their national strategies of interventions necessary for eliminating trachoma, based on the WHO-recommended SAFE strategy.
The strategy emphasizes comprehensive public health action and stands for lid surgery (S), antibiotics to treat the infection (A), facial cleanliness (F); and environmental changes (E). If implemented comprehensively, the strategy could prevent virtually all cases of blindness.
Trachoma, which affects the poorest and most remote rural areas of 56 countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Australia and the Middle East, originates from an eye infection that is spread from person to person, frequently from child to child and from child to mother within the family, especially in conditions of water shortages, flies, and crowded households.
Through discharge from an infected person's eyes, it is passed on by hands, on clothing, or by flies that land on the person's face. Infections often begin during infancy or childhood and become chronic. If left untreated, these infections eventually cause the eyelid to turn inward which in turn causes the eye lashes to rub on the eyeball, resulting in intense pain and scarring of the front of the eye.
This ultimately leads to irreversible blindness, typically beginning between ages 30-40 and often resulting in deepening poverty for individuals and their families. Women are blinded two to three times more often than men, probably due to their close contact with affected children.
Launched under WHO leadership in 1997 to support country implementation of the SAFE strategy, GET2020 is open to members from all sectors - public, non-governmental and commercial, willing to work with governments. Members include national governments, research institutions, foundations, and the pharmaceutical industry.