10 Years of Data to Eliminate Trachoma

13 Dec 2022
Teams conduct a trachoma impact survey in Bac Kan province, Vietnam. Data is entered into the Tropical Data system, which supports programs through the full survey process. Photo credit: RTI International/Nguyen Minh Duc

By Laura Rabago, RTI International

55 countries. 12.6 million pairs of eyes examined. What do these numbers have in common? Tropical Data. For the past 10 years, Tropical Data, and its predecessor the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), have been supporting health ministries as they work to eliminate trachoma.

Trachoma is a painful neglected tropical disease (NTD) that can result in irreversible blindness. Without treatment, this bacterial infection can cause the eyelashes to turn inwards, scraping against the eye and causing irreparable damage. Fortunately, safe, effective medicines exist to treat infection and surgeries are available to address those that need them. But we must find out who needs these services.

Gilbert uses the Tropical Data app during a trachoma survey in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Gilbert Mrema

Ten years ago, a global effort was born to do just that, and it became one of the world’s largest ever public health initiatives. First, through GTMP, a nearly complete global map of trachoma prevalence was developed to determine where the disease exists and what health services would be needed. Now, Tropical Data support is provided to health ministries to track progress toward the elimination of trachoma.

How does it work? Tropical Data utilizes a smartphone application as well as a platform for providing support in developing survey protocols, training for health workers, as well as tools and resources to ensure surveys conform to World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations. Supported by Tropical Data, health workers identify trachoma, grade its severity, and accurately record findings. The collected data is then sent out to a cloud-based server, where it can be used to inform programmatic decision-making.

Gilbert Mrema takes a break during a trachoma survey in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Gilbert Mrema

A health worker in Tanzania, Gilbert Mrema uses Tropical Data as he goes door-to-door to check people’s eyes for signs of trachoma. Having worked in this capacity for over 10 years, Mrema is passionate about his work.

Mrema is motivated by the need to “understand where trachoma is and of what magnitude.” He anticipates the day when Tanzania will “eventually eliminate trachoma as a public health issue in our communities.”

And Mrema has seen his work improve with the introduction of Tropical Data and the support that it provides.

“Before the introduction of smart phones, trachoma surveys were a tedious-paper-based, effort. Tropical Data has helped to ease the work.” Mrema continues, “I was an analogue grader and now Tropical Data made me a digital grader.”

Not only does Tropical Data make the day-to-day easier for health workers but it further helps inform governments and decision-makers where treatment for trachoma is still needed. Reaching its decennial anniversary marks the role of Tropical Data and GTMP in supporting health ministries with the tools needed to effectively gather and use high-quality data to track progress toward trachoma elimination.

“I would recommend Tropical Data be used by other countries because it allows governments to accurately and quickly gather standardized data, which can help them track progress toward trachoma elimination”, states Mrema.

Already, Tanzania has made incredible progress eliminate trachoma, with more than 17 million people no longer at risk for the disease, thanks to strong government leadership and the support of graders like Gilbert. USAID’s Act to End NTDs | East program has been supporting Tanzania’s efforts to eliminate trachoma, helping to support treatment campaigns, surveys to track progress, training health workers, and ensuring that no one is left behind. Globally, the Act to End NTDs | East program is supporting 13 countries in achieving their goals to eliminate neglected tropical disease, like trachoma. And Tropical Data is a crucial part of support to governments on their trachoma elimination journey.

Tropical Data is implemented by a consortium of partners including RTI International through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Act to End NTDs | East program, the International Trachoma Initiative, Sightsavers, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Learn more about Tropical Data.