Efforts to eliminate blinding trachoma as a public health problem in the West African nations of Mali and Niger will receive US$11.725 million in additional support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, to be implemented by The Carter Center, Helen Keller International, and Sightsavers, the organizations announced Wednesday.

An outdoor examination of a woman’s right eye, looking for symptoms of trachoma/CDC
An outdoor examination of a woman’s right eye, looking for symptoms of trachoma/CDC

“The Hilton Foundation has supported efforts toward the global elimination of trachoma for more than 20 years and we are thrilled to be reaching the elimination of this disease as a public health problem in countries like Mali and Niger by 2020,” said Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the Hilton Foundation.

“I have seen firsthand the devastating effects that neglected tropical diseases have, and no one should have to suffer from a disease that is preventable. I believe that through collective compassion, collaboration and smart solutions, we can achieve this goal by 2020.”

In a new pledge of $11.725 million, the Hilton Foundation granted $5.975 million to Helen Keller International, $5.1 million to The Carter Center, and $650,000 to Sightsavers. The organizations work in partnership with the federal health ministries; Helen Keller International and The Carter Center work in both Mali and Niger, while Sightsavers works solely in Mali. Because it requires each organization to match its gift dollar for dollar by 2020, the grant will leverage a total $23.45 million of new funds toward eliminating blinding trachoma in the two West African countries.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, founder of The Carter Center, praised the teamwork that has gone into the international effort.

“Mali and Niger’s strong commitment and hard work have brought them within reach of eliminating blinding trachoma,” Carter said. “Their progress gives other countries encouragement and incentive to pursue a similar goal. We partners want to help them cross the finish line, and this new funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation makes it possible.”

Trachoma, caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness.  It is one of a group of what are known as neglected tropical diseases; evidence of this infection can be traced to as early as 8,000 B.C.  It affects millions of people in impoverished communities that lack access to clean water and sanitation. Trachoma is spread from person to person through direct contact and by flies that carry the infection from one person’s eyes to another’s.

Women and children are disproportionately affected by trachoma. It often begins in early childhood. Multiple infections can cause inflammation and scarring of the inner eyelid, which leads to trichiasis, the painful, blinding stage of trachoma in which the eyelashes turn inward and scratch the surface of the eyeball.

Trachoma can be found in over 50 countries, most in Africa and the Middle East, and a few countries in the Americas and Asia. Globally, 200 million people are at risk for trachoma, and over 3.2 million are at immediate risk for blindness from trichiasis. Although trachoma is easily preventable, more than 2 million of the world’s poorest people are blind today because they did not have access to eyelid surgery or prevention strategies. The disease is responsible for an estimated annual productivity loss of up to US$8 billion.

In 1996, the World Health Organization adopted the SAFE strategy (which stands for Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial cleanliness and hygiene education, and Environmental improvement) to treat and prevent trachoma.

In 1997, the agency launched the WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by 2020 (GET2020), a global partnership of member states, NGOs (including The Carter Center, Helen Keller International, and Sightsavers), philanthropic organizations (including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation), and the private sector to mobilize resources and foster coordination of efforts to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem.