Hope in sight: Ending the infection that scrapes eyes blind

Barikisu Mohammed and her sister, Ayishetu Abdulai, in Yendi, Ghana, after eye surgery to treat trachoma infection and resulting scarring.

Story highlights

  • Infection with a certain bacterium scars eyelids until they turn inward, causing lashes to rub against the eye
  • Trachoma scars the cornea, slowly decreasing vision until blindness sets in
  • But countries once struggling with the disease have proved that they can beat it -- most recently Ghana

(CNN)The pain is so intense that people don't dare blink. To do so could mean scraping away what little sight they have left.

Instead, they resort to tying scarves around their heads in hopes of keeping their eyes from closing. Others carry tweezers and pluck out eyelashes and bring relief from the constant pain and impairment; these hairs, inverted by their disease and rubbing against their eye, are to blame.
    But the real culprit is a bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis. Repeated or prolonged infection with it scars a person's eyelids until they turn inward, causing lashes to rub against the eye constantly.
    "The pain is excruciating," said Simon Bush, director of the neglected tropical diseases program at international nongovernmental organization Sightsavers. "People tell me it's like sandpaper scratching over your eye every time you blink."
    Eventually, the cornea is scarred, slowly decreasing vision until blindness sets in.
    "Once you get to a particular stage, it's irreversible," Bush said.
    This is life with trachoma, a preventable infection that has impaired the vision of almost 2 million people worldwide today, with a further 200 million at risk across 41 countries.