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Eyesight for Ethiopia

(Vienna, 20th December 2012) During the course of a one-month field study, the MedUni Vienna team was able to treat several hundred people with trachoma and trichiasis as part of the Laura Bassi OCUVAC programme. Samples were also taken to help drive forward the development of a vaccine.


During November, an interdisciplinary team of three students from the MedUni Vienna and one student from the University of Vienna, led by Talin Barisani (Institute of Specific Prophylaxis and Tropical Medicine) was stationed in north-east Africa. Children aged from six months to ten years were screened and treated for trachoma at several Koran schools in Al-Qadarif (Sudan). Samples were also taken from 100 children (tears, swabs, blood). Numerous patients with trichiasis – the final stage of trachoma – were treated surgically in Ethiopia at the University of Jimma. A further 300 samples were taken here too (tears, swabs, blood and urine).

Most important result of this pre-Christmas field study: as well as the immediate medical assistance for hundreds of affected individuals, all of the samples were shipped safely to Vienna. These samples will now be investigated at the MedUni Vienna to drive ahead the development of a vaccine for trachoma and to help us better understand which mechanisms are involved in the development and progression of the condition. Specifically, the samples will be investigated to determine the role of co-factors (e.g. vitamin D status), the immune response at the conjunctiva and the infection status.

To begin with, however, the field study faced a number of challenges. Since the samples were transported in liquid nitrogen, all of the airlines involved first had to consent to their transport and liquid nitrogen had to be organised at all of the stop-offs so that the transport containers could be topped up. Added to this were the various ethical and ministerial approvals required, together with numerous contacts with ambassadors and special envoys. The journey also took the scientists in some cases to remote regions with no infrastructure. Intercultural acceptance was also a major issue: the team was accompanied in Sudan, for example, by female ophthalmologists clothed in burqas.

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