Vanuatu is Pacific’s first to eliminate major disease

Vanuatu has become the first Pacific island country to eliminate trachoma, a neglected tropical disease that can cause blindness.

This will be the second such disease eliminated from this archipelago nation of 83 islands, after lymphatic filariasis in 2016.

“This is a proud moment for Vanuatu,” said Minister of Health Bruno Leingkone in a statement issued by the World Health Organisation.

“My Ministry of Health colleagues and I feel honoured to have been part of this joint effort, which has involved medical and public health personnel and communities working together with the support of partner organizations to eliminate this disease.

“This combined effort has already saved hundreds of people from lifelong blindness and will have continued impacts on the vision and overall health of people across Vanuatu long into the future.”

Health workers in Vanuatu doing work to eradicate trachoma. Picture: Vanuatu Health Promotions

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated Vanuatu for the achievement.

“This success demonstrates the strong commitment of health workers, communities and governments to protecting their people and ensuring healthier lives for all,” he said.

Trachoma is a public health problem in 43 countries worldwide, responsible for causing irreversible blindness or visual impairment in about 1.9 million people. The disease is caused by infection with Chlamydia trachomatis bacteria.

Vanuatu’s success underscores the comprehensive nature of the WHO-recommended SAFE strategy for trachoma elimination.

This includes surgery for trichiasis, antibiotics to clear infection, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement to limit transmission.

Reading material for mass drug administration to eradicate trachoma in Vanuatu. Picture: Vanuatu Health Promotions

The country has steadily, methodically and rigorously implemented these measures, ensuring that the most marginalised and hard-to-reach populations are included in mass drug administration, surgical outreach for advanced cases and health education, along with initiatives to mitigate environmental risks and continuous efforts to gauge programme efficacy and appropriately target resources.

“To understand the magnitude of this feat, just imagine what it must take to reach people across all of Vanuatu’s inhabited islands – taking boats across open ocean and walking for hours through creeks and over hills in all kinds of weather,” said WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr Takeshi Kasai.

Baseline epidemiological surveys conducted in 2014 demonstrated that 12 per cent of children aged one to nine years in Vanuatu had active (inflammatory) trachoma, prompting the launch of a national programme.

Since then, the government has vigorously pursued the trachoma elimination target, despite challenges related to the country’s geography and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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So far, 46 countries and areas around the world have been recognised by WHO for achieving one of the above goals.

Globally, 14 countries including Vanuatu have eliminated trachoma as a public health problem.

Trachoma remains endemic in eight countries in the region. WHO calls for health authorities in those countries to take action to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem by 2030.

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