Globally, around 116 million people are at risk of a disease that can leave their eyes scarred and blinded.
This painful neglected tropical disease (NTD) is called trachoma. It thrives in places where clean water is scarce, sanitation is poor, and flies buzz around.
The good news: since 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there has been a 92% reduction in the number of people needing treatment for trachoma. Already, 17 countries have successfully eliminated trachoma as a public health problem. Just this spring, Benin and Mali eliminated the disease.
As even more countries get closer to eliminating this NTD, a new challenge is emerging: how to keep the health workforce well-trained on identifying signs of trachoma, given that there is less and less of the disease around the world. For health professionals, training typically involves a mix of textbook learning and real-world clinical experience. But what do you do when cases of trachoma are harder to find?
Earlier this month, the Tropical Data programme piloted a new form of training that will help to overcome this problem. We went back to the classroom with a global refresher course for 93 health professionals from 33 countries, all who are championing efforts to eliminate trachoma.
Let’s start with how we got here. In the early 2000s, there was little information on the prevalence of trachoma around the world, except for WHO’s list of countries considered endemic for the disease. In 2012, the Global Trachoma Mapping Project was born to support health ministries in undertaking the world’s largest disease survey to map trachoma, district by district.
This effort established a clearer picture of where trachoma was prevalent, and gave health ministries the information they needed to create targeted strategies to eliminate it. To be confident in these assessments, there was also a global investment in training health workers to identify trachoma and collect and record that data.
With a global map of trachoma (minus a few exceptions due to insecurity) and a trained health workforce, we knew we couldn’t stop there. That’s how Tropical Data emerged as a global initiative, which could continue to support health ministries in assessing the impact of their trachoma programmes while providing training to health workers to ensure that countries were collecting high-quality data for decision-making. Today, 50 countries around the world have partnered with Tropical Data to support nearly 3,500 trachoma surveys.
High-quality data has been a key player in eliminating trachoma. In order to maintain this, we need to ensure that health workers can accurately identify the disease.
Previously, Tropical Data held global ‘training of trainer’ workshops where health workers learn how to identify trachoma, conduct surveys and use an app to record findings. For the graders learning to identify trachoma, these workshops paired classroom-based learning with clinical experience, gained from examining the eyes of children with the disease. This first-hand experience was a crucial part of ensuring health workers were prepared to train teams of other health workers in their respective countries to complete the surveys. These health workers are often skilled eye health professionals.
The Tropical Data programme is run by partners including the International Trachoma Initiative, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, RTI International through the USAID Act to End NTDs East programme, and Sightsavers. It is made possible through the support of governments in endemic countries, as well as international donors.More on the programme