Australia has failed to meet its commitment to eliminate trachoma by 2020, setting a new deadline of 2022.
The renewed date comes amid calls for greater access to adequate washing facilities in schools and homes in Australia’s remote Indigenous communities where families can wait up to six months for domestic repairs.
Professor Hugh Taylor, professor of Indigenous Eye Health at the University of Melbourne, told Insight the key to eliminating trachoma is to keep every child’s face clean.
The trachoma rate had fallen from 21% in 2008 to 4% in 2020 due to the distribution of antibiotics and health promotion, but those figures have plateaued in recent years.
Australia remains as the only developed country where trachoma is still endemic, mostly in remote indigenous communities.
“We need to address housing to get it across the line,” Taylor said.
“Hygiene is fundamental. The problem is the inability of children to access safe and functional washing facilities, at home and at school,” he said.
He said the Department of Education in Western Australia put soap in schools during COVID-19, but now the decision to provide soap is at the principal’s discretion.
Taylor said washing facilities in some schools in remote indigenous communities are locked, or damaged, making it impossible for children to wash their faces, and increasing the likelihood of infection or re-infection.
In terms of washing facilities in houses, Taylor said tenants were generally prohibited from performing repairs on a broken tap, blocked drain or a leaky pipe.
“They typically have to wait three to six months for a repairman. So families move in next door, which leads to over-crowding, and increases the risk of infection spreading,” he said.
Trachoma is not the only disease affected by sub-par washing facilities; ear and skin infections can also spread as a result of lack of hygiene.
Speaking on ABC radio in December, Taylor told listeners that the missed 2020 target was mostly due to poor housing and hygiene.
“There has not been the attention put on preventing the transmission of infection by good hygiene and we really need to focus on safe and functional bathroom and washing facilities,” Taylor said.
There are about 24 communities in Central Australia where more than 20% of children have the condition.
According to Taylor, a housing maintenance officer in each community who could make prompt home repairs “would make a huge difference”.
“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the power of the community-controlled sector, and we are advocating for a community-controlled approach to housing repairs and maintenance in Australia’s remote indigenous communities, to perform minor repairs promptly so access to washing facilities is not compromised,” he told Insight.