Trachoma is an eye disease that affects millions of people worldwide, in the worst cases leaving them irreversibly blind. The good news is that, if you catch it soon enough, it’s a highly treatable. Give a community repeated doses of antibiotics and the disease goes away. In fact, trachoma specialists think it’s possible to eradicate it completely and permanently from the world, assuming you can reach everyone who has the disease, or who is at risk of getting it.
That last part is the difficult bit. Trachoma is found in the remotest parts of the planet: deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, far into the deserts of Sudan, or along the great rivers of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), a recently completed project to document trachoma, health workers couldn’t say for sure where the disease was still a concern.
“The whole trachoma community is united behind a common goal of eliminating trachoma by 2020,” says Sarah Bartlett, at Sightsavers, a nonprofit that works to prevent blindness. “The nonprofits and ministries of health were all ready to go with their workers, and the funding was available. The treatment was donated by Pfizer. But nobody knew where the disease was because nobody had ever mapped it before.”
Orchestrated by Sightsavers over the last three years, 550 teams have fanned out to 29 countries, documenting trachoma cases where they find them. The mapping project is the largest of its kind in history and could provide the basis to eliminate trachoma. Now health workers know exactly where to send antibiotics, and where environmental conditions that allow the disease to fester need to improve.
The mapping teams included ophthalmologists who graded each trachoma case, recorders who compiled data into an Android-based smartphone portal, and local guides. The technology was important, says Bartlett, as it allowed the data to be standardized and cleaned up afterwards. It also saved money: Each case cost about a quarter to collate and map.
GTMP was funded by U.K. development agency DFID, together with USAID. The World Health Organization, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and many other nonprofits were also involved. Now Bartlett hopes to the project will lead to similar ones for other diseases, including onchocerciasis, or river blindness.