Australia is set to finally eliminate the painful and potentially blinding eye condition trachoma, as community health experts announce they are positive the disease will be eradicated within remaining Indigenous strongholds by 2020.
Recent united government and community efforts have seen the disease reduced significantly throughout Australia. Nationally, trachoma prevalence in 5 to 9-year-old children has declined from 20% in the late 2000s to 4.7% in 2016 and just 3.8% in 2017. The number of communities at risk has similarly declined, from 150 in 2016 to 130 in 2017.
The disease — which spreads via unwashed hands, shared face-wiping cloths, and flies — occurs in disadvantaged communities where water is contaminated and sanitation is poor.
Medical practitioner Clare Huppatz revealed that increased trachoma screenings, community engagement, and encouragement to uphold basic health measures like face and hand washing throughout remote Indigenous communities has made all the difference.
"I'm pretty confident that we'll get to the 2020 target," Huppatz told the ABC.
#Trachoma is the leading infectious cause of blindness. As part of our #TimeToSee exhibition @AFergusonPhoto visited Aboriginal communities in Australia – the only developed country still with trachoma – to document how communities are tackling the disease https://t.co/wGpCbhc1z6pic.twitter.com/JpdgfrjfOG— DiamondJubileeTrust (@qejubileetrust) April 26, 2018
For Fiona Lange, a health promotion officer from Melbourne University, tools like a cartoon goanna trachoma mascot named Milpa and colourful local murals are working to actively engage young children in remote schools about the danger of the disease.
"[Increased efforts] have involved schools, clinics, and community members. There's tiers and layers of involvement," Lange stated.
Milpa the Trachoma Goanna bringing his Clean Faces, Strong Eyes message to the Arlparra Store in Utopia, Northern Territory. Via Indigenous Eyehealth Facebook
Shockingly, the disease was actually eradicated within Australia’s non-Indigenous community over 100 years ago thanks to improved living and health conditions. Just two years ago, however, active trachoma infections still affected 5% of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory; a rate that is universally considered to be at an endemic level.
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This disparity follows a wider health imbalance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 40 years old are three times as likely to have vision loss issues compared to Australia’s non-Indigenous population. Similarly, the general burden of disease within Indigenous peoples is 2.3 times that of non-Indigenous Australians.
Milpa with Thumbs Up Facilitator Joanna Campbell and student from Indulkana Anangu School. Via Aboriginal Health NACCHO Twitter.
Currently, all developed nations — besides Australia — have been declared trachoma-free. Mexico, Morocco, Oman, Lao, Cambodia, Nepal, and Ghana have also received their elimination status in the past 10 years.