Trachoma 

Introduction 

Trachoma is a bacterial eye infection that can be spread by flies and is common in developing areas of the world such as Africa 

Advice for travellers

Travellers from the UK are only at risk of developing trachoma if they're planning to live or work in very poor communities in the developing world – for example, as aid workers.

However, even if someone living and working in a community where trachoma is a problem were to develop the infection, it's highly unlikely that they would have the repeated infections that can cause blindness.

Trachoma is a type of bacterial eye infection. The condition is a leading cause of preventable blindness worldwide, although it's now rare in developed nations such as the UK.

Trachoma usually first affects young children, causing mild irritation of the eyes and a discharge of pus and/or mucus from the eyes.

By adulthood, repeated trachoma infections can result in more severe symptoms, including:

  • blurred vision
  • eye pain, which is often severe
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • an intense feeling of itchiness in the eyes – this is caused by the eyelashes turning back onto the surface of the eye

As the condition progresses, the "turned in" eyelashes will begin to scar the cornea (the transparent layer at the front of the eye). This is known as trichiasis.

The scarring will cause a person's vision to become increasingly cloudy and, left untreated, it will eventually lead to a complete loss of vision.

What causes trachoma and how does it spread?

Trachoma is caused by a type of bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis, which can be highly contagious.

Someone can become infected if they come into direct contact with the discharge produced from the eyes or nose of an infected person, or by contact with contaminated objects such as towels and clothes.

Flies can also transfer the bacteria from the discharge. In the developing world, flies are one of the main ways trachoma is spread.

Read more about what causes trachoma.

Who is affected by trachoma?

Trachoma is a disease directly related to poverty. Improvements in health and hygiene mean the condition is now rarely a problem in the UK and the rest of the developed world, although it has been in the past.

Nowadays, trachoma is usually only found in the very poorest communities – typically villages and slums in hot, dusty climates where hygiene levels are poor and access to water and sanitation is limited. The majority of trachoma cases occur in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

It's estimated that 150 million people in the world require treatment for trachoma and six million people are blind because of the condition.

Trachoma is most common in children between one and five years old. In adults, women are more likely than men to develop trachoma because they tend to be in closer contact with young children.

How is trachoma treated?

Trachoma is simple to treat. However, as people with trachoma tend to live in areas where the condition is widespread, the risk of re-infection is high. Therefore, treatment usually involves whole communities.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended an initiative called "SAFE" to help manage and eliminate trachoma. This stands for:

  • Surgery – to repair any damage to the eyelids and eyes
  • Antibiotics – to treat the infection
  • Facial cleanliness – to prevent the spread of the bacteria
  • Environmental improvements, such as constructing a well to provide clean water – to reduce the risk of re-infection 

Read more about treating trachoma.

Page last reviewed: 15/02/2013

Next review due: 15/02/2015

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