Optometrists in the United States don’t often see trachoma. The disease has been all but eradicated from North America and Europe for nearly 60 years, said Dr. Fraser Horn, an optometrist at Pacific EyeClinic Forest Grove.
On Monday, though, Horn and his fellow optometrists, along with student interns from the Pacific University College of Optometry, screened 20 children for the bacterial infection that, left untreated, causes vision loss in 1.3 million people around the world.
The children are from Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world. They are members of Asante Choir, traveling the western United States to thank the sponsors who help pay for them to have a home and go to school and to raise awareness of the plight of other children in East Africa.
That awareness came with them in a very real form, when one of the children was diagnosed with trachoma.
“We noticed his eyes were red. We thought it was allergies, but a week into it, they were cloudy, too, and that didn’t make sense,” said Leslie Upton, a host mother for two of the choir children.
They took him to an optometrist, who prescribed glasses and a follow-up visit to a cornea specialist. He was eventually diagnosed with trachoma and treated, at which point Upton and others realized that several children in the choir had early symptoms of the disease.
Upton said she called several places trying to find quick help for the large group — they perform in Newberg Wednesday, then move on to the Idaho leg of their tour, though they’ll be back in Oregon in mid-July — and was referred to Pacific University.
In no time, the group was set to spend Monday morning receiving free eye exams and trachoma screenings and treatment at the Forest Grove clinic.
“Our students were super excited to help out,” said Dr. Horn. “They’re really good about community service and world service, and it will be a good educational experience for them, as well.”
The children were all smiles Monday as they toured the Pacific University campus (they especially enjoyed the Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center, where a small group performed an impromptu song and dance on the stage) and received what were, for many, the first eye exams of their lives.
(One boy, asked by an intern to identify his favorite thing in the United States, replied, “This chair!” with awe as the large exam-room chair moved up and down.)
The good news was that less than half of the children were diagnosed with trachoma.
“We are really, really happy to report that the infection is not nearly as serious as we thought,” said Diane Leiker, tour organizer for the group.
The group home where the children live in Burundi is obviously managing sanitation, despite the extreme poverty in the area, and this will allow them to help teach their neighbors some practices to alleviate spread of the disease, as well, she said.
“We’re really, really hugely thankful,” for Pacific’s contribution, she added.