A new vision in the fight against preventable blindness24/01/2013
GIS technology is playing a key role in the efforts to eradicate trachoma – the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.
Otherwise known as granular conjunctivitis, trachoma is a bacterial eye disease that affects the globe’s most vulnerable populations, and when left untreated can cause blindness.
The disease is most prevalent in women and children living in regions with limited access to sanitation and water. As it is transmitted via close personal contact, trachoma outbreaks tend to occur in clusters – often affecting entire families and communities.
The International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) – an NGO dedicated to the elimination of blinding trachoma – report there are approximately 110 million people worldwide living in areas where the disease is endemic and who require treatment, with an additional 210 million people living in areas where trachoma is suspected of being endemic.
In an effort to completely eradicate trachoma, the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched an ambitious program called The Alliance for the Global Elimination of Blinding Trachoma 2020, or GET 2020.
In order to help achieve this goal, ITI has turned to GIS technology to map and analyse incidences of trachoma in near real-time, and facilitate improved treatment.
Previously, ITI had developed the Global Atlas of Trachoma, an open-access resource providing regional maps of trachoma’s geographic distribution – a tool which enabled health workers to reach more people with preventative hygiene, corrective surgery and antibiotics.
However, researchers discovered the database supporting the atlas had information gaps – with more than 1,200 health districts lacking the data needed to guide interventions.
To resolve this issue, fieldworkers were equipped with mobile devices to collect information from isolated and hard-to-reach locations.
This allowed them to report back to head office in real-time, where the data could be mapped and scrutinised – enabling researchers to pinpoint gaps in prevention and treatment services.
To trial this idea, a development study took place in Ethiopia’s Oromia region in mid 2011, leveraging the latest ArcGIS data collection, transfer and visual display processes.
Fieldworkers were taught to collect data on Android devices such as smartphones and tablets – and the simplicity of the user interface meant this training was completed in half a day.
These workers were then able to visit very remote locations and quickly update data from the field – using their devices to transmit data back to ITI headquarters in the US, where it was summarised, checked for errors and mapped.
Using a 3G connection, the data was transmitted to the server and updated in real-time, eliminating the need for manual data entry – a by-product of the surveys conducted previously.
The data was then converted into points on a map, which illustrated the distribution of surveyed clusters and ensured selected samples spatially represented the entire survey area.
This provided aid workers with a more accurate picture and understanding of the incidences of trachoma and enabled them to provide better assistance to impacted communities.
The ability to easily collect data on mobile devices from very remote, hard-to-reach locations and perform real-time data transfers provided much-needed efficiencies, and the technology trial was deemed a success.
Additionally dynamic maps provided an intuitive tool to help health workers quickly identify affected areas and people needing treatment.
With so many potential applications in the health arena, researchers are now looking at ways they can use GIS technology to help combat other tropical diseases.