Bringing Tropical Data to the Pacific Islands

On the frontlines of trachoma elimination, trained eye specialists across the Pacific Islands can now gather and use high-quality data to track progress.

Lui Daniel examines the eyes of a young girl for signs of trachoma, as school children watch from their classroom window. Photo Credit: RTI International/ Shea Flynn

Wearing a special set of magnifying lenses called loupes, Lui Daniel flipped and inspected the eyelids of a young girl. He relayed his findings to a colleague standing nearby who made notes in an application on her smartphone. From her smartphone, the data goes into a cloud-based server, where it can be accessed, analyzed, and used for programmatic decision-making through a secure web portal.

This is Tropical Data. Lui was using the system to check for signs of trachoma, a neglected tropical disease (NTD) that can lead to blindness if left untreated. He was one of 31 participants in a recent Tropical Data training of trainers held in the Solomon Islands — the first of such trainings in the Western Pacific region. From Fiji to Vanuatu, Kiribati to Tonga, health workers gathered to learn how to use the system to identify trachoma, grade its severity, and accurately record findings.

Lui Daniel, a Trachoma Grader from Vanuatu, wearing his loupes. Photo Credit: RTI International/ Shea Flynn

Trachoma is endemic in several Pacific Island countries, but for some of them, the exact magnitude of the problem is not known. It is believed that rates are quite low compared to other trachoma-endemic countries.

“In order to prove that, evidence needs to be collected,” says Oliver Sokana, the National Public Health Eyecare Coordinator for the Solomon Island’s Ministry of Health and Medical Services. “That’s why this training is necessary. Now we will have a common understanding of survey methods in all Pacific countries.”
Oliver Sokana examines the eyes of children at a school in Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Photo credit: RTI International/Shea Flynn

High-quality, accurate, and standardized data are critical to properly track and assess progress towards trachoma elimination. Tropical Data fills this need with a cutting-edge electronic system coupled with customized advice, support, tools, and resources that countries can use to plan and carry out surveys that will conform to WHO recommendations.

As a key partner in Tropical Data, RTI International not only manages the system’s technology, but also supports regional trainings of trainers worldwide, such as this one, through USAID’s ENVISION Project. A partnership with The Fred Hollows Foundation enabled RTI to reach the Western Pacific region with this much-needed training. Globally, 321 people have been trained since the system launched in 2016. This year, regional trainings have been conducted in Colombia, Ethiopia, Solomon Islands and Tanzania, reaching trainees from 50 countries around the world.

The goal of these so-called “super-trainings” is to train eye specialists and health workers who return to their countries to train others in the highest-quality methods to implement trachoma surveys. Selected by their own health ministries to attend the training, these individuals become the champions for trachoma surveys and Tropical Data in their communities.

Oliver is already looking forward to the positive impact this will have across Pacific Island countries. “Before it was just me [supporting surveys for trachoma in the region]. This takes me away from my other important work [in the Solomon Islands]. With more trainers, other countries will be able to meet their own needs. Now it will be important for them to get more practice and maintain their skills.”
Left: During training, Doreen Mala practices recording results after a woman’s eyes are examined for trachoma. Right: Doreen and other recorders practice uploading the results into the Tropical Data system. Photo credit: RTI International/Shea Flynn

Doreen Mala travelled to attend the training from Fiji, where she’s a Nurse Unit Manager for the Eye Center at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital. When she returns, she plans to begin organizing a Tropical Data training in Fiji.

“I can surely say we have been empowered as trainers [graders and recorders] for our countries,” she says. “We look forward to technical support and working together in partnership to reach the objective of the elimination of trachoma.”
Ana Cama, a Master Grader with The Fred Hollows Foundation in New Zealand, examines the eyes of a young boy at a school in Guadacanal, Solomon Islands. Photo Credit: Shea Flynn/RTI International

Tropical Data helps countries to collect high quality data by providing epidemiological, training, logistical and data management support to national programs carrying out all types of cross-sectional surveys on trachoma.

The team behind Tropical Data is a consortium of scientific, technological and implementing partners. The International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) provides the core data management service. RTI International manages the system technology and supports the super trainings. Sightsavers provides project management, documentation, budgeting and training packages. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine provides scientific oversight through Chief Scientist, Dr. Emma Harding-Esch. The World Health Organization sets standards and protects country interests. More info at: www.tropicaldata.org