Neglected tropical diseases

Trachoma: WHO-led alliance awarded for saving the sight of millions

28 October 2016 | Geneva | Durban –– The WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by the year 2020 (GET2020) has been awarded the Global Partnership Award by the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. The award is in recognition of the remarkable work accomplished by the Alliance in implementing the WHO-recommended SAFE strategy1.

From left: Anthony Solomon, Medical Officer and Secretary GET2020; Dr Astrid Bonfield, Chief Executive, Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust; and Professor Serge Resnikoff, Vice-Chair, International Coalition for Trachoma Control

This award is a testament to the incredible collaboration that has been fostered within the Alliance, which has paved the way for saving the sight of millions of people around the world” said Dr Anthony Solomon, Medical Officer at WHO’s Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “The Alliance has been working in partnership against trachoma for 20 years and, with a small amount of additional investment and a lot of hard work, is now poised to achieve its objectives.”

The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness also rewarded the late Professor Brien Holden, founder of the Brien Holden Vision Institute and an extraordinary champion for eye health and optometry services worldwide, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The Collaboration Award went to the International Eye Foundation for its contribution to the advancement of eye health. Individual awards were also given to eye care professionals.

An estimated 1000 delegates from across the world are attending this 10th General Assembly in Durban, South Africa. The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness fosters cross-sectoral collaborations within the eye health sector.

Progress and challenges

Supported by the Alliance, most countries endemic for trachoma are accelerating the implementation of the SAFE strategy to achieve their elimination targets by 2020. In 2015, more than 185 000 people with the sight-threatening stage of trachoma received corrective surgery and 56 million were treated with antibiotics to eliminate the disease.

The trachoma community estimates that funding of up to US$1 billion is required to sustain activities until 2020 in order to eliminate the disease as a public health problem.2 From 2012 to 2015, WHO helped to lead the Global Trachoma Mapping Project, which provided baseline survey data for 1546 suspected endemic districts in 29 countries by examining 2.6 million people, thereby facilitating the launch of interventions wherever they are required.

We have an exceptionally accurate picture of where interventions are needed to eliminate trachoma. This is the opportunity to defeat this infectious disease which is explicitly linked to poverty” said Dr Solomon.

Trachoma is endemic in many of the poorest and most rural communities of Africa, Central and South America, Asia, Australia (where it affects indigenous populations in remote areas) and the Middle East. The biggest challenge is funding as national programmes have limited resources to implement elimination strategies.

The SAFE strategy is cost–effective and affordable” added Christopher Fitzpatrick, Health Economist at the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases. “It has the potential to eliminate a condition that even today and despite so much progress costs billions of dollars every year in productivity losses.”

To date, eight countries have reported achieving the elimination goals, which signifies a major milestone in the campaign to eliminate trachoma. In November 2012, Oman was acknowledged by WHO to have eliminated the disease.

WHO adopted the SAFE strategy in 1993. Its mandate is to provide technical leadership and coordination to international efforts aiming to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem.

In 1996, WHO launched the Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by 2020 – a partnership which supports implementation of the SAFE strategy by Member States and the strengthening of national capacity through epidemiological surveys, monitoring, surveillance, project evaluation, and resource mobilization.

1The strategy comprises Surgery for trichiasis, Antibiotics to clear Chlamydia trachomatis infection, and Facial cleanliness and Environmental improvement to reduce transmission of the infection.
2Elimination of trachoma as a public health problem is defined as: (i) a prevalence of trachomatous trichiasis “unknown to the health system” of less than 0.2% in adults aged 15 years and older; and (ii) a prevalence of trachomatous inflammation-follicular in children aged 1–9 years of less than 5% in each formerly endemic district.
3China, Gambia, Ghana, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar and Oman.

Ashok Moloo
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