TACOMA, Washington — Trachoma is a public health crisis in 44 countries, and it is currently responsible for blindness and/or visual impairment of 1.9 million people. As of March 2020, 137 million people live in endemic areas, which means they are exposed to the illness and have a high chance of contracting it. To counter this disease globally, the WHO established the SAFE program, which stands for Surgery for advanced disease, Antibiotics to clear C. trachomatis infection, Facial cleanliness and Environmental improvement to reduce transmission. Today, the global containment of trachoma is at 57%, and through initiatives like those found in Myanmar, that number is continuing to go down.
Trachoma Control Project Successes
In September of 2020, Myanmar joined the list of nations where trachoma no longer poses a public health crisis, but this was after years of struggle with the disease. Trachoma is considered a “neglected tropical disease,” and thus, was ignored as a health crisis for many years. The disease tends to be a greater problem in tropical rural areas, such as parts of Myanmar. In 1964, the government, with support from WHO and UNICEF, founded a trachoma control project through the Ministry of Health and Sports. With government support, this program was implemented throughout even the most rural parts of the country.
Within its trachoma control project, the government of Myanmar gave the plan of WASH as its strategy to counter the disease. WASH stands for topical antibiotic treatment and water, sanitation and hygiene. Because trachoma is spread through a bacterial infection of the eyes, health activists and government officials realized the importance of proper sanitation in countering it. Initiatives aimed at getting the public educated on the disease were of significant importance in limiting the spread. Once citizens learned about the threat trachoma posed in their daily lives, they were able to take their own personal precautions against it for the betterment of their community.
Nonprofits Aid in Mission
Nonprofits have also been a part of Myanmar’s success, such as SEE International, which is an organization that focuses on eye care globally. Through a collaboration with OHSU’s Casey Eye Institute in Mandalay, SEE provided support and funding for 150 surgical cases in 2017. In addition to this, the organization also provided training programs for those interested in becoming eye doctors. One of the obstacles to treatment in Myanmar was often the lack of access to medical assistance. Individuals in rural communities did not have the means to reach larger city centers where treatment was available, nor did they have the funds. Access to health services is essential to the combatting of disease, and through the involvement of groups such as this one, that has become possible.
Locally, the Shwe Yatu Tipitaka Eye Hospital has helped to provide free surgery and treatment for those suffering from trachoma, as well as other eye health concerns. It was founded in 2013 by two Buddhist monks who specifically aim to treat the eye health of those under 12 as a preventative measure. In addition to performing surgery, the hospital also instituted a pediatric eye screening program as well as a national eye health database. These measures helped to track the movement of the disease, meaning that prevention measures were able to outmaneuver the spread. Through this, it is also evident that disease tracking is essential to counter the spread of contagious diseases.
In the words of Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director of the South-East Asia Region, “Myanmar’s multi-pronged approach promoting access to good hygiene infrastructure and clean water, strengthening eye care system, and complete community buy-in have enabled the country to ensure that people of all ages can now look towards a trachoma-free future.” Other nations can look to Myanmar and the other 10 countries which have eradicated trachoma as examples; these countries made public health a priority in their government system and this has helped the nation.
Specifically in Myanmar, it has been shown that education, access to healthcare and disease tracking are also essential to the fight against infectious diseases, and when these factors are addressed, the entire population benefits. Trachoma still hurts many people annually, but with proactive measures, a better future is possible.
– Mary Buffaloe