In the village school of Kuyu, in the heartland of Ethiopia’s Oromia region, more than 20 children put up their hands when asked if anyone in their family has eye problems.

“My mother has lost vision in one eye and the other is causing her big problems,” says one boy. “She can’t see where she’s going.” Another child says her grandmother is blind in both eyes and is forever pulling out her eyelashes. “She rubs and rubs them,” explains the nine-year-old girl. “They give her terrible pain.”

No hands are raised when the children are asked if they themselves have vision problems. Yet, when an ophthalmologist examines the children’s eyes, more than half of them are discovered to have infectious trachoma, a bacterial infection which is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.  The disease starts in childhood. If untreated, the bacteria causes inflammation that leads to scar tissue building up under the eyelid.

Infectious trachoma

. Causes roughening of the inner surface of the eyelids

. After years of repeated infection, scarring on the inside of the eyelid may cause it to turn inward

. This leads to the eyelashes rubbing on the eyeball, scarring the front of it

. Untreated this can lead to sight problems, and eventual blindness

The scarring eventually makes the eyelid turn inwards, causing the eyelashes to scratch against the cornea.  It is excruciatingly painful and if left untreated leads to irreversible blindness. “The dangerous thing about trachoma is that there are very few symptoms for children,” says Dr Wondu Alemayehu, one of the leading eye specialists in Ethiopia, and technical adviser for the Fred Hollows Foundation, which is leading a campaign in Ethiopia to tackle the scourge of trachoma.  “A child with trachoma would have a little bit of discomfort but not that much.  “It’s what they pass on to their mothers that can become dangerous.”

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