10.02.2006 Health

Ghana to eliminate Trachoma by 2010

10.02.2006 LISTEN

A GNA feature by Mrs Linda Asante Agyei

Accra, Feb. 10, GNA - In plain language; victims of trachoma must be cautioned that when they start feeling constant and discomfort sensation on their cornea, then they are on the super highway of getting blind. The situation is even worse for patients suffering from trichiasis, the advanced stage of trachoma.

Trachoma is one of the oldest but unpopular infectious diseases that date back to ancient Egypt. The hidden disease is common in rural communities where people lived in overcrowded abodes with limited access to water and health care.

The preventable disease is threatening to blind nearly 10 per cent of the world's population.

Trachoma is often overlooked by health officials and not listed for priority attention although it is the world's leading cause of preventable blindness and is highly infectious. The disease is caused by bacteria known as Chlamydia trachomatis, which spreads easily on an infected person's hand or clothing and through flies that come into contact with discharges from the eyes or nose of patients.

The progression to blindness begins during childhood, as repeated infections cause inflammation and scarring on the inside of the upper eyelid.

Over a period of time, the eyelashes turn inward, rubbing and scarring cornea, which leads to vision loss and eventually blindness. The disease occurs in clusters and often infects entire families and communities because it is transmitted through close personal contact.

The most vulnerable people are women and children but women are three times more likely to be blinded by the disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 10 per cent of the world's population is at risk of getting attacked and nearly eight million people, 75 per cent of them women, either go blind or are partially blind.

Another 84 million people, comprising mainly children suffer from active infection.

A single dose of zithromax, an azalide antibiotic manufactured and donated by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals is effective against trachoma infection.

Dr Agatha Aboe, International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) Country representative, told the Ghana News Agency that 2.6 million people in Ghana were at risk of trachoma infection, with 12,000 cases of trachoma related blindness.

She said in Ghana, the disease is concentrated in certain spots in the Northern and Upper West Regions with active prevalence rates ranging from 2.8 per cent to 16.1 per cent while district trichiasis prevalence rates ranged from 0.4 per cent to 8.4 per cent.

She noted that trachoma in Ghana was different from that in some countries like Mali and Niger where the prevalence rate was higher and covered almost all the regions in these countries.

"Ghana is making great strides to reduce trachoma infections, and we are now confident that blindness from the disease will be eliminated within the next four years," she said

Dr Aboe explained that the strategic plan for trachoma control in Ghana has as its vision a "Ghana Free of Blinding Trachoma" with the goal to eliminate blinding trachoma from Ghana by 2010. She said Ghana was on track to become one of the first countries in more than 50 years to eliminate blinding trachoma as part of an international effort to eliminate blindness from the disease worldwide.

"If Ghana meets the 2010 target date, it will do so 10 years before the target date for global elimination of blinding trachoma, which is 2020" She attributed Ghana's successful trachoma strategy to the result of a strong leadership from the Ghana Health Service (GHS) and partnership with ITI and Pfizer.

"We are proud that our national trachoma control strategy is expected to be so effective over the next four years," she said, adding: "We are working very successfully with our partner organizations and we look forward to the entire country benefiting from the elimination of this tragic disease."

Pfizer, according to her, has provided a support package of 1.89 billion dollars worth of Zithromax, a drug for the treatment of trachoma worldwide.

In Ghana, Pfizer during the first phase of the ITI's programme from 2000 to 2005 donated more than 1.3 million doses of zithromax drugs and would provide nearly six million doses in the future. Dr Aboe also attributed the success to the ITI's SAFE strategy, which include surgery to correct advanced stages of the disease, antibiotics to treat active infection, and the use of zithromax , face washing to reduce disease transmission and environmental change to increase access to clean water and improved sanitation to eliminate the disease altogether.

She said since the inception of the programme in 2000; about 3,177 people, who were at the potentially blinding stage of the disease had been provided with surgery.

"Meeting surgery targets during the first stage of Ghana's trachoma elimination programme was a challenge due to the low rate of case detection as well as the time-consuming training of trichiasis surgeons," she noted.

Major Courage Quashigah (rtd), Minister of Health, who was interacting with the President of ITI, Dr Jacob Kumaresan, during his recent visit to Ghana, said about 9,000 Ghanaians who suffered from various eye diseases required surgery.

He described the situation as sad, and called for a continued and sustained advocacy health education and hygiene promotion activities, which he considered as paramount in the effort to stem the tide. The Minister said Government's efforts in equipping polyclinics to cater for simple eye diseases must be supported to make eye care services accessible and an essential part of primary health care. Dr Kumaresan, told the GNA that the team was impressed with the successful activities going on in the two endemic regions and commended Ghana for the efforts put in place to eliminate trachoma. "Our partnership with the Ghanaian Government on trachoma control efforts has been extraordinary," said Dr Kumaresan.

"Ghana, free of avoidable blindness, is what we desire to see in our dear country.... we will work hard in concert with our partners to achieve our goal of eliminating blinding trachoma from Ghana by 2010 and if possible by 2008", Professor Agyeman-Badu Akosa, Director-General of GHS, said.

If trachoma, a preventable disease could be eliminated, capacity building, community education and implementation of SAFE strategy would have a lasting effect on the lives of millions in the developing world. Educational efforts to promote improved hygiene and sanitation practices remain crucial to sustainable reduction of the disease. Safe water sources, promotion of construction of household toilets and initiation of community clean-up campaigns should be encouraged, intensified and sustained. The eye is an important and vital part of the body, therefore, all efforts should be made to protect it from getting damaged by a disease that could easily be prevented. 10 Feb. 06

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