Trachoma, if left untreated, can lead to blindness and is only found in remote Aboriginal communities. (Supplied: International Centre for Eye Health)
Health officials say they are confident trachoma is on track to be eliminated in Australia — the only developed nation where it still exists as a public health problem — within the next two years.
A national push to combat trachoma was launched a decade ago in an effort to meet a World Health Organisation target to defeat the eye disease by 2020.
Trachoma, which if left untreated causes irreversible blindness, is found only in remote Indigenous communities; its last recorded case in a major city was more than a century ago.
But coordinated efforts between federal and state governments has seen a dramatic decline from more than 20 per cent prevalence in the late 2000s to less than 4 per cent today.
“I’m pretty confident that we’ll get to the 2020 target,” said Clare Huppatz, a population health official whose team conducts trachoma screenings in the remote Ngaanyatjarra Lands.
Population health expert Clare Huppatz’s team conducts trachoma screenings in the remote Ngaanyatjarra Lands. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
The campaign to fight the disease, while steered at an international level, has been largely driven from within Indigenous communities themselves over the last decade.
“It’s involved schools, clinics, and community members. There’s tiers and layers of involvement,” said Fiona Lange, a health promotion officer from Melbourne University.
In communities like Warakurna in the remote Ngaanyatjarra Lands, with a population of 180, it is the simplest of measures that have had lasting effects.
“[We encourage] blowing your nose with a tissue until it’s empty, washing your hands with soap, washing your face whenever it’s dirty and even tooth brushing,” Ms Lange said.
The ‘Clean faces, strong eyes’ slogan is a daily reminder for children in remote Warburton. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
A mascot called Milpa, a smiling cartoon goanna, has become the face of the fight against trachoma and is a well-known mascot in remote schools.
In Warburton, another remote community, a mural painted brightly on a building reads ‘Clean faces, strong eyes’: a daily reminder for locals and passers-by.
Trachoma in steady decline worldwide
Around 43 countries around the world still have endemic trachoma as a public health problem, but that number is falling.
Last year, WHO announced Cambodia, Laos and Mexico had successfully eliminating the disease, according to Andrew Solomon, a WHO specialist in neglected tropical diseases.
So far in 2018, Ghana, Iran and Nepal have also been validated for elimination of trachoma.
“We’re well on track to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem [worldwide],” Dr Solomon said.
“It’s difficult to know when we will actually get that job done.”
Milpa, the trachoma gecko, promotes facial and personal hygiene among school-aged children in remote communities. (ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
The WHO campaign does not aim to completely eradicate trachoma, but instead minimise infections to a low enough level that individual cases can be easily managed.
While the disease can affect people of any age, its symptoms most commonly appear among children because of personal hygiene reasons.
If symptoms are detected in screening, treatment can be provided immediately with a single dose of an antibiotic drug.
Despite the success of the Australian efforts to eliminate trachoma, experts warn keeping up good hygiene in remote communities should still be a priority.
“I think it’s another important point to not get too single-focused on some of these disease issues,” said Professor John Kaldor from the Kirby Institute in Sydney.