A good problem: why new training methods are needed to eliminate trachoma

Globally, around 116 million people are at risk of a disease that can leave their eyes scarred and blinded.

This painful neglected tropical disease (NTD) is called trachoma. It thrives in places where clean water is scarce, sanitation is poor, and flies buzz around.

The good news: since 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there has been a 92% reduction in the number of people needing treatment for trachoma. Already, 17 countries have successfully eliminated trachoma as a public health problem. Just this spring, Benin and Mali eliminated the disease.

As even more countries get closer to eliminating this NTD, a new challenge is emerging: how to keep the health workforce well-trained on identifying signs of trachoma, given that there is less and less of the disease around the world. For health professionals, training typically involves a mix of textbook learning and real-world clinical experience. But what do you do when cases of trachoma are harder to find?

Earlier this month, the Tropical Data programme piloted a new form of training that will help to overcome this problem. We went back to the classroom with a global refresher course for 93 health professionals from 33 countries, all who are championing efforts to eliminate trachoma.

An eye health worker looks at images on a laptop during a trachoma training session.
Attendees at a July 2023 training event practised checking eyes for signs of trachoma. © RTI International/Caitlin Mensah
Participants gathered for a global ‘training of trainers’ event in Nairobi, Kenya. © RTI International/Caitlin Mensah

Global efforts to eliminate trachoma

Let’s start with how we got here. In the early 2000s, there was little information on the prevalence of trachoma around the world, except for WHO’s list of countries considered endemic for the disease. In 2012, the Global Trachoma Mapping Project was born to support health ministries in undertaking the world’s largest disease survey to map trachoma, district by district.

This effort established a clearer picture of where trachoma was prevalent, and gave health ministries the information they needed to create targeted strategies to eliminate it. To be confident in these assessments, there was also a global investment in training health workers to identify trachoma and collect and record that data.

With a global map of trachoma (minus a few exceptions due to insecurity) and a trained health workforce, we knew we couldn’t stop there. That’s how Tropical Data emerged as a global initiative, which could continue to support health ministries in assessing the impact of their trachoma programmes while providing training to health workers to ensure that countries were collecting high-quality data for decision-making. Today, 50 countries around the world have partnered with Tropical Data to support nearly 3,500 trachoma surveys.

Tailoring training for trachoma today

High-quality data has been a key player in eliminating trachoma. In order to maintain this, we need to ensure that health workers can accurately identify the disease.

Previously, Tropical Data held global ‘training of trainer’ workshops where health workers learn how to identify trachoma, conduct surveys and use an app to record findings. For the graders learning to identify trachoma, these workshops paired classroom-based learning with clinical experience, gained from examining the eyes of children with the disease. This first-hand experience was a crucial part of ensuring health workers were prepared to train teams of other health workers in their respective countries to complete the surveys. These health workers are often skilled eye health professionals.

A person's hands are shown, entering data into a mobile phone

About Tropical Data

The Tropical Data programme is run by partners including the International Trachoma Initiative, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, RTI International through the USAID Act to End NTDs East programme, and Sightsavers. It is made possible through the support of governments in endemic countries, as well as international donors.

More on the programme
An eye health worker checks a child's eyes during a trachoma training event.
In Senegal, trachoma graders were shown how to assess children's eyes for signs of the disease. © RTI International/Shea Flynn

However, thanks to the incredible progress toward the global elimination of trachoma as a public health problem, it is becoming less and less likely that graders will find enough clinical cases in many communities to provide them with hands-on clinical experience. It’s a good problem to have, as it is a sign that these public health efforts are showing tremendous impact. As we plan for the future, we need to ensure that we can train health workers without relying on finding trachoma in the field.

In July 2023, Tropical Data introduced a new training approach that can solve this problem. We have moved over to a new curriculum where we are using more than a decade’s worth of clinical photos of trachoma from all over the world when training health workers to identify signs of trachoma.

Trainees will now be shown a variety of photographs and tested with different types of assessment methods, so clinical diagnosis will still be standardised. The training programme won’t all be about classroom learning though, as trainees are still expected to demonstrate clinical eye examination skills on live patients of all ages before they are certified as trachoma graders.

At a recent training event in Nairobi, Kenya, 93 health professionals gathered to refresh their skills and provide critical feedback on this new curriculum, to ensure we maintain the highest standards for trachoma surveys for years to come. As trachoma efforts progress, we need to ensure the health workforce knows how to spot it, prevent it, and provide care for those affected by it. These skills remain essential to eliminating the disease around the world, especially among groups who are often left behind when it comes to health services.

Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, but the goal of eliminating it is in sight. With quality survey data, a trained health workforce, and new resources, countries are closer than ever to ending this debilitating disease.

We need to ensure we can train health workers without relying on finding trachoma in the field


Jeremiah Ngondi is senior NTD advisor at RTI International, and Caleb Mpyet is an epidemiologist at Sightsavers.


Want to learn more about our work to fight NTDs?

Sightsavers and trachoma

Related news and stories

Dr Ndalela examines a boy's eyes and applies ointment to ease the symptoms of trachoma.

Sightsavers awarded grant to help eliminate trachoma in Zambia

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has awarded Sightsavers a grant of US$2.19 million to help fight the disease.

January 2024
Lanoi stands outside and smiles with her hands on top of her head. She looks off to the right.
Sightsavers Reports

Our sights are set on eliminating trachoma in Kenya

Ophthalmic nurse Jeremiah Gwafa was first inspired to work in eye health as a child, after seeing the impact of blindness on his own family.

Eye care staff perform trachoma surveys on children in Cote D'Ivoire.

Sightsavers and RSTMH host learning event on large-scale trachoma programmes

The online event will share key findings on eliminating trachoma from a new collection of research papers published in the International Health journal.

December 2023