Press release

UK to help save millions from preventable blindness

Lynne Featherstone announces new support to help protect the sight of millions of people in Africa at risk of developing blindness caused by trachoma.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

13-year-old Neema washes her face to protect against the blinding disease trachoma. Millions more like Neema across Africa will be protected from blindness through a new Sightsavers-led programme funded by the UK. Picture: Suzanne Porter/SightSavers
13-year-old Neema washes her face to protect against the blinding disease trachoma. Millions more like Neema across Africa will be protected from blindness through a new Sightsavers-led programme funded by the UK. Picture: Suzanne Porter/SightSavers

The UK will protect the sight of millions of people in Africa at risk of developing blindness caused by trachoma, International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone has announced today.

Trachoma starts with a bacterial eye infection which if left untreated can lead to blindness. Trachoma is responsible for 3% of global blindness, causing 1 adult to go blind every 15 minutes. Up to 230 million people are at risk of catching the disease with 70% of those affected women. The pain, low vision and blindness caused by the disease can trap people in a cycle of poverty by preventing them from going to work. Women and children may also have to give up education or employment to provide care to affected family members.

The Department for International Development is investing £39 million to help support the elimination of trachoma in countries like Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania where the disease is highly endemic. The funding will support the implementation of the Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial Cleanliness and Environmental Improvements (SAFE) strategy which has proven successful in eliminating the disease.

Lynne Featherstone said:

Trachoma is the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world yet it is an entirely preventable disease. Stopping trachoma before it gets hold can make a significant difference to people’s lives, especially women. Up to 90 per cent of blind people cannot work making their poverty worse and leading to greater financial insecurity and lower standards of living.

The £39 million will be implemented by a consortium of International Coalition for Trachoma Control (ICTC) members and will be managed by SightSavers. The new programme forms part of DFID’s increased focus on disability. It will help thousands of people receive surgery to prevent blindness; see millions of doses of antibiotics distributed, and improve cleanliness to stop the spread of the disease, including eliminating the conditions which promote disease carrying flies.

Notes to editors

  1. Trachoma starts with a bacterial eye infection which results in mild itching, irritation and contraction of the eyelids that causes the eyelashes to scratch the eye. This can lead to blurred vision and eye pain. If left untreated, this can lead to blindness. Trachoma is associated with conditions of poverty such as overcrowding, water shortage, lack of healthcare, inadequate hygiene and poor sanitation. Transmission occurs from person to person or via eye-seeking flies that breed on faeces. Infections occur mainly in children.

  2. In 2012 DFID made £50 million available to support the control and global mapping of trachoma. DFID also match-funded £50 million to The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust for programmes across the Commonwealth on avoidable blindness, including trachoma. The UK is also funding the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP) that is identifying the disease burden of trachoma in unmapped areas that are suspected to be trachoma endemic. This will ensure that resources for trachoma control are targeted to the the people who are most in need.

  3. The SAFE strategy uses a WHO-endorsed set of interventions to address the underlying causes of trachoma. Surgery: addresses the immediate disability and reduces the progression to blindness; Antibiotics: reduces/eliminates the infection; Facial Cleanliness: promotes behaviour change to reduce transmission of infection; and, Environmental Improvements: including access to water and basic sanitation, reduce transmission and eliminate conditions that encourage the breeding of flies.

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Published 24 June 2014