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.
        A farmer receives an examination for trachoma at a medical center in Vietnam, one of many countries aiming to eliminate the disease.
        But in recent years, countries once struggling with the disease have proved that they can beat it.
        Oman came first in 2012 with the announcement that it had eliminated the disease as a public health concern. Morocco followed suit in 2016 and then Mexico, Cambodia and Laos in 2017.
        Last month saw Nepal achieve the goal, and Ghana declared this month that it had eliminated the disease -- the first country to do so in sub-Saharan Africa.
        "Ghana has eliminated a painful eye disease which has devastated the lives of millions of its most vulnerable people for years," Bush said. "But the fight does not end here. Many other countries are on the cusp of elimination and must continue to push for the elimination of trachoma -- and other neglected tropical diseases -- across the world."

        Simple solutions

        There are five levels of trachoma severity, from mild inflammation of follicles to at least one ingrown eyelash and eventually corneal opacity, in which a cornea appears cloudy or white from scarring, impairing the person's vision.
        It starts with a single infection.
        "The disease thrives in areas that are traditionally short of water," Bush said of the "trachoma belt," which spans from Northern Nigeria to South Sudan.