TEPIC, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mexico has become the first country in the Americas to eliminate trachoma, but the world's leading infectious cause of blindness remains endemic in Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala, the World Health Organization said.
"Eliminating a disease is not achieved every day," Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the organization's regional office, said in a statement.
She attributed Mexico's victory over the bacterial disease to the decades-long efforts of authorities, health workers and communities to improve health and quality of life.
Better living conditions have wiped out trachoma in many nations but some 200 million people are still at risk of contracting the disease, according to the International Trachoma Initiative.
Oman and Morocco have already eliminated trachoma, which is categorized by the WHO as a neglected tropical disease - a group of 18 debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses that affect 1.5 billion people, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Trachoma, which can cause irreversible blindness, had proven hard to stamp out in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where it was endemic in 246 communities, the PAHO said.
Specially trained medical workers helped cut the number of cases in Chiapas to zero in 2016 from nearly 1,800 in 2004, by promoting hygiene, antibiotics for infection and surgery for advanced cases of trachoma.
The illness is more common in places with poor sanitation, overcrowded households and water shortages.
Trachoma can be prevented in childhood by having facilities for children to wash their faces, and if caught soon enough the disease is easily treatable with repeated doses of antibiotics.
Those suffering an advanced stage of the disease, in which the eyelashes turn inward and scrape the cornea, can be treated with simple surgery.
Women are four times more likely than men to be blinded by trachoma, largely due to their greater contact with children and frequency of infection from the disease, says the WHO.
More than 260,000 people received corrective surgery worldwide for advanced trachoma in 2016 and 86 million were treated with antibiotics, according to the agency.
Cambodia, China, Gambia, Ghana, Iran, Laos and Myanmar have also reported reaching elimination targets for the disease, but these have yet to be verified.
(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling and Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/)