Mapping project delivers data on 137 million people affected by blinding disease

25 July 2014

A project that uses mobile technology to map the blinding disease trachoma has already studied 137 million people nine months ahead of schedule, as it marks its second anniversary.

The Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Sightsavers, and the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), was launched in 2012 to globally map the neglected tropical disease (NTD) trachoma. Trachoma is a painful and infectious eye disease, in which an individual's eyelashes turn in and rub on the cornea, eventually leading to scarring and loss of vision.

Prior to the GTMP, it was known that over 110 million people lived in confirmed trachoma-endemic areas, including Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania, and another 210 million people lived in areas where there were strong indications that trachoma was present, but insufficient data had been gathered to plan interventions.

As the project now reaches its second anniversary, its initial scope of work has nearly been completed, with 94% of the districts surveyed nine months ahead of schedule and under budget.

Chief scientist to the project , Dr Anthony Solomon, Honorary Senior Lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "This collaboration of partners, guided in each country by national Ministries of Health, has managed to provide high quality, on-the-ground, programme-ready data for 137 million people affected by the world's most important infectious cause of blindness, in just two years. That, I think, is an amazing achievement, and though we still have a long way to go, the progress of the GTMP so far brings the goal of global trachoma elimination by 2020 a few steps closer to becoming a reality."

The project involves rolling out a standardised assessment process which uses trained eye health workers and a smartphone.  Survey teams visit and examine people living in a sample of communities within pre-identified districts and capture data on the presence of the disease. 

The data collected are then used to help Ministries of Health plan their trachoma intervention programmes to eliminate the disease, in line with the WHO-recommended strategy. The information also helps to guide requests for antibiotics, assist health workers in planning for surgeries, and establish approaches for improvements in access to water, sanitation and hygiene. 

To date GTMP has trained over 700 field teams and equipped them with more than 200 smartphones to examine over 1.7 million people across 19 countries. This has led to the processing of more than 28 million data items through the smartphone application.

Dr Anthony Solomon, who is now Medical Officer at the WHO's Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, added: "We owe huge thanks to the hundreds of incredibly hard working teams and supervisors who have left their families to contribute to the project in the searing heat, sand storms, appalling roads and torrential rains of some of the most difficult-to-reach communities in the world. This would not happen without them."

Other GTMP researchers based or previously based at the School include Prof Allen Foster, Chair of the GTMP Advisory Committee, and Prof Simon Brooker, Dr Jenny Smith and Prof Neal Alexander, who were involved in the project's methodological development.