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What is trachoma?

Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, and is part of a group of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases (often referred to as NTDs).

Aluna from Tanzania has her eyes checked for trachoma. They are visibly red and swollen.

The End is in Sight: our campaign to eliminate trachoma

About the campaign

Trachoma starts off as a bacterial infection that’s a bit like conjunctivitis, and can be easily treated.

But if it’s not, over time it causes scarring to the eyelid that pulls the eyelashes inward, so with every blink they scrape against the eye. This advanced form of trachoma is called trichiasis, and the pain can be so intense that many people resort to pulling out their eyelashes to reduce the agony of blinking. Over time, if it’s not treated, trichiasis can lead to blindness.

What causes trachoma?

The disease thrives where there are water shortages, poor sanitation and infestations of flies. It’s caused by repeated infection with bacteria known as ‘chamydia trachomatis’, and it spreads through contact with infected flies and via hands, clothes or bedding that have been in contact with an infected person.

The agony and disability of blinding trachoma can lead to a cycle of poverty, limiting many people’s access to health services, education and employment.

Watch the TED Talk

In April 2018, Sightsavers CEO Caroline Harper gave a TED Talk about trachoma, explaining how we aim to eliminate the disease.

More about the talk
44
countries count trachoma as a public health problem
142 million
people are at risk of going blind from trachoma
1.9 million
people are blind or visually impaired because of the disease

What are the symptoms of trachoma?

The most common signs that a person is suffering from trachoma include:

  • Discharge from the eyes
  • Irritated eyes
  • Redness

Because the infection spreads via hands, clothes and bedding, it disproportionately affects women and children: women are up to four times more likely than men to be blinded by the disease. If trachoma is not treated, it can lead to trichiasis.

What is trichiasis?

Trichiasis, sometimes called advanced trachoma, is when the eyes get inflamed after repeated trachoma infections. Scar tissue builds up on the inside of the eyelid, making the eyelid tight and pulling the eyelashes inwards. When the eyelashes rub the cornea, it causes immense pain and can lead to blindness.

An illustration from Nicholas Nickleby showing character Wackford Squeers fighting with a man as a crowd looks on.

Did you know?

Charles Dickens‘ novel Nicholas Nickleby was inspired by a 19th-century boarding school devastated by trachoma.

The history of trachoma

How is trachoma treated?

A child in Senegal holds antibiotic tablets in his hand.

Antibiotics

Antibiotic tablets, donated by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, are used to treat the infection. Trachoma treatment is usually repeated annually for up to five years.

Surgeons operate on a trachoma patient.

Trichiasis surgery

Advanced trachoma, known as trichiasis, can cause the eyelashes to turn inwards. An operation stops the eyelashes rubbing against the eyeball, and can stop people from going blind.

A boy washes his face to prevent the spread of trachoma infection.

Cleanliness and hygiene

Communities are encouraged to change behaviour that can put them at risk of contracting trachoma, and are taught about the importance of face washing, hygiene and sanitation.

Want to learn more about the history of trachoma?

Read our trachoma timeline

Our work to treat trachoma

Our aim is to eliminate trachoma in the countries where we work, and this goal is now closer than ever.

In June 2018, Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to eliminate the disease. Yet there are still 44 countries that count trachoma as a public health problem, , where people are at risk of being permanently blinded by trichiasis.

We help to control the impact and spread of trachoma by implementing the World Health Organization’s SAFE strategy: the acronym describes the four methods used to control the disease.

Trachoma prevention: the SAFE strategy

  • Surgery: to stop eyelashes from rubbing against the eyeball and helping to halt the cycle of repeated infection that can lead to blindness.
  • Antibiotics: medication treats the trachoma infection and reduces the spread of the disease. It is usually repeated annually for up to five years.
  • Facial cleanliness: teaching local communities the importance of face washing, and encouraging good hygiene to prevent the infection being spread.
  • Environmental improvements: to improve access to water and sanitation to reduce exposure and re-infection, and eliminate conditions in which flies breed.
Eye surgeon Dr Ndalela examines a child's eyes to check for signs of trachoma.

The End is in Sight: our campaign to eliminate trachoma

We’re on a mission to stamp out the disease by 2025, but we need your help to banish it for good.

About our campaign

How we’re fighting trachoma

Khady, 8, from Senegal is measured for her annual dose of Zithromax.

The Accelerate trachoma elimination programme

Accelerate aims to eliminate trachoma in at least nine countries and speed up progress in several others by 2023.

A child drinks water from a cup during a drug administration session in Nigeria.

Ascend: fighting disease in West and Central Africa

The three-year Ascend West and Central Africa programme, funded by UK aid, will deliver 440 million treatments and treat five neglected tropical diseases.

Five school students in Zambia in front of a mural depicting superheroes from Sightsavers' Super School of 5 programme.

Super School of Five

This project, in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia, introduces five superhero cartoon characters to encourage school children to wash their hands and face.

School children in Tanzania smile for the camera.

The Commonwealth Fund

This programme funds surgery, treatment distribution and improved hygiene and sanitation in 10 Commonwealth countries where trachoma is endemic.

A girl's eyes are examined as part of the Global Trachoma Mapping Project in Nigeria.

The Global Trachoma Mapping Project

As the largest infectious disease survey ever undertaken, the GTMP gathered valuable data about the world’s trachoma-endemic areas using smartphones.

A schoolboy splashes water on his face to learn about facewashing, as part of a SAFE initiative in Senegal.

SAFE: trachoma control

The SAFE programme, which ended in 2019, aimed to control the spread of blinding trachoma via surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environmental improvements.

You can help save someone’s sight

I would like to make a donation

Could protect 180 people from blinding trachoma.

Could pay for an operation to treat advanced trachoma.

Could protect 720 people from blinding trachoma.

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Could protect 75 people from blinding trachoma.

Could pay for an operation to treat advanced trachoma.

Could pay for two operations to treat advanced trachoma.

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We're sorry, but the minimum donation we can take is $3
We're sorry, but we cannot process a donation of this size online. Please contact us on [email protected] for assistance donating over $15,000

Learn how we’re fighting disease