Northern Territory artist Lena Campbell saw her late grandmother go blind from trachoma. She is now trying to stop the next generation from following the same path.
She lives in Titikara in the red sands of the Simpson Desert, a town more than 100 kilometers south of Alice Springs.
However, dusty conditions are a common cause of the preventable eye disease trachoma.
“Summer can have very dry winds that bring all the dirt into the community,” Campbell told Drum.
What is trachoma and how does it spread?
Trachoma is caused by an infection chlamydia trachomatis This bacterium is easily spread through personal contact, shared bedding, and even flies that pick it up.
Most days, Tichikala kids ages 2 to 14 run around the basketball courts, sharing hula hoops and kicking soccer.
Ms. Campbell calls the children to a large watering can, lathers up the soap and splashes water on their faces.
“If my parents aren’t here, I take care of them to keep them clean,” she explains.
“Especially after school, children come here to play and I ask them to wash their hands and face in case of trachoma or sore eyes.”
Why does this eye disease still exist in Australia?
According to the World Health Organization, Australia remains the highest-income country with endemic trachoma.
Environmental factors such as housing conditions play an important role in combating this blinding disease.
Ms. Campbell is seen as one of the “stronger women” in her community for speaking up for residents.
She is upset that trachoma still exists in indigenous communities like hers, even though the city was able to eradicate it 100 years ago.
Pop-up eye clinic looks for traces of trachoma
Imogen McLean is one of the NT Health nurses looking for signs of trachoma in children’s eyes.
She works at a pop-up clinic that focuses on children ages 5-9.
“It gives us a good big picture and tells us what’s going on in the community,” McLean told Drum.
Nationally, the prevalence of trachoma in children has declined from 14% in 2009, when this effort began, to 3.8% in 2020.
Nurses peel the children’s eyelids and look for follicles that look like “small ulcers.”
All household contacts should be treated with antibiotics if they find these signs.
However, if people get repeated infections, it can cause eyelashes to grow in the wrong direction, scratch the cornea, and lead to blindness later in life.
Children in the Northern Territory have the prettiest faces ever
Trachoma cases continue to decline in the Northern Territory, but 41 communities are still considered at risk.
When the program started in 2009, the overall prevalence of trachoma was 25%, but in some areas it reached 50%.
“Last year we [were] Down to 6.3% [but] Some communities are still around 15 to 20 percent,” McLean says.
COVID-19 has impacted the work the clinic was doing within the community, but McLean said from the clinic’s records she sees the benefits of personal hygiene messages.
“Last year, we found that the percentage of pretty-faced kids was the highest ever.”
Failure to meet eradication goals
Australia has committed to eradicating trachoma by 2020 and then by 2022 but has not met its goals.
In a statement to The Drum, Assistant Secretary of State for Indigenous Peoples Health Marandiri McCarthy said Australia is aiming to eradicate it, but no new targets have yet been set.
“The department is working with affected jurisdictions, the Aboriginal Community Management Health Department and other key stakeholders to develop revised target dates,” said Senator McCarthy.
A 2019 National Surveillance Report showed that 115 communities remained at risk, with persistent or “high endemic levels” rising from 13 to 24 communities in one year.
The University of Melbourne, which participates in these clinics, says the work done to address trachoma has made progress to close the avoidable blindness gap by 2025.
However, 16 trachoma hotspot areas remain.
A Joint Council to Bridge the Gap meets in Adelaide to discuss ways to advance goals to improve First Nations health.
“We are working with the National Aboriginal Community Management Health Organization to explore the role it and its members can play in both designing and implementing the trachoma response,” said Senator McCarthy.