What Is Trachoma?

Trachoma, an eye infection affecting both eyes, is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), trachoma is responsible for the visual impairment of 2.2 million people, of whom 1.2 million are irreversibly blind. Trachoma is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis.

In its early stages, trachoma causes conjunctivitis (pink eye). Early symptoms, which begin to appear within five to 12 days of exposure to the bacterium, can include mild itching and irritation of the eyes and eyelids and a discharge from the eyes. As the infection progresses, it causes eye pain and blurred vision. If the infection is untreated, scarring occurs inside the eyelid. This leads to the eyelashes turning inward toward the eye, a condition called trichiasis. The eyelashes brush and scratch against the cornea, the clear covering at the front of the eye. This continual irritation turns the cornea cloudy and can lead to the development of corneal ulcers and vision loss.

Having one episode of trachoma rarely causes problems. It is thought that experiencing repeated infections is what leads to the scarring and blinding complications. Generally, it takes years before trachoma can cause vision loss.

Who is at risk for trachoma?

Trachoma is rare in the United States and Europe. It is commonly found in developing nations where poverty, crowded living conditions and poor sanitation help spread the disease. It is very contagious and is spread by direct contact with someone infected with the bacteria or with contaminated objects, such as towels.

The World Health Organization estimates that 41 million people worldwide, mostly women and children, have active trachoma infection.