End in sight for trachoma

It’s mid morning in Ntaria, otherwise known as Hermannsburg, a remote Aboriginal community 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Inside the local childcare centre, just after story time, a group of mothers and children have gathered to learn about good hygiene.

24-year-old Thelma Moketarinja, a softly-spoken Community Based Worker for The Fred Hollows Foundation, holds up a brightly coloured poster which reads, “Clean Faces, Strong Eyes.”

“You’ve got to keep your faces clean, your noses clean,” she tells them in their local language, Western Arrarnta. “You’ve got to wash your hands and wash your eyes.”

Thelma lives a short walk away with her mother and her two infant daughters.She wants the next generation to be free from the disease which has afflicted so many remote Aboriginal communites for decades.

“It’s good to encourage them with these things so that they don’t go blind,” she says.

The hygiene lesson is part of a long term strategy known as SAFE (Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial Cleanliness and Environment) which has been used successfully around the world to eliminate trachoma.

With infection rates dropping dramatically in the Northern Territory, thanks to the federal government’s $16 million Trachoma Elimination Program, such preventative measures are increasingly important  in stopping the spread of this disease.

Australia is the only developed country in the world to still have trachoma, which is often known as the disease of poverty. It is still endemic in more than 28 per cent of communities in the Northern Territory. But finally, it seems, progress is being made. 

The Australian Trachoma Surveillance Report, issued by the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, shows that in 2009, 14 per cent of children between the ages of five and nine in communities that were screened in the Northern Territory had trachoma. By 2012, the rates for the same age group for the communities that were screen had plummeted to 4 per cent. The report concluded that “Australia remains on course to eliminate trachoma by 2020.”

Gabrielle Watt, the Trachoma Program Coordinator for the Northern Territory’s Department of Health, says the Community Based Workers funded by The Fred Hollows Foundation play a crucial role in keeping it at bay.

“They undoubtedly increase coverage at screening and treatment events for trachoma,” Ms Watt said. “They are the friendly faces who explain what the program is about in the community’s own language. They explain there is nothing to fear, that the antibiotic not only treats trachoma but prevents it spreading. They’re an extremely helpful part of the program.”

Over the next four years, The Fred Hollows Foundation will increase the number of Community Based Workers from 8 to a potential 30.

Angus Thornton, a team leader for The Foundation’s Indigenous Australian Program said, “When you have a local person there, it gives the program a lot of validity.”

“Sometimes it’s a matter of going out and finding people for the screening and treatment, and explaining to them that it’s about making sure their communities – especially their children - are healthy. ''

“It’s important to work on the long term strategies after the nurses visit. Experience from overseas has shown that if you don’t follow through with the preventative side, it will return,” he said.

The Trachoma Elimination Program has been funded for another four years.

The Foundation’s Director of Public Affairs, David Britton, said:

“This shows what can be achieved with a long-term developmental approach when both Indigenous and non Indigenous organisations come together to solve an intractable problem. The Foundation’s Indigenous Program has highly committed staff who are achieving Fred’s vision.”
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