Science & Technology

Leading cause of blindness topic of next UGA Voices Lecture

Trachoma starts off looking like ordinary pink eye or conjunctivitis. But left untreated, this bacterial infection causes eyes to ooze, lids to swell and sometimes turn inside out, and leads to permanent scarring that blinds millions of people every year.

One of the world’s leading expert on this infectious disease will deliver the next Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard lecture on Feb. 21 at 5:30 p.m. in the University of Georgia Chapel.

Shelia West, who has devoted her career to public health ophthalmology, is a researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and has worked to battle this disfiguring and life-limiting disease in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Niger.

In her lecture “Trachoma: Challenges to Elimination,” she will show how she collaborates with the World Health Organization to deploy antibiotics, surgery and improved facial hygiene as weapons against this ailment, which is the leading cause of blindness.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded West, vice chair for research at John Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute, and her colleagues a $12 million grant to determine how trachoma can best be controlled. Although her present work focuses on what it will take to eliminate blinding trachoma in some of the poorest parts of the world, she also has studied vision changes in older drivers, risk factors for diabetic eye disease and cataract disparities.

“I am really looking forward to Sheila West’s Voices lecture,” said Dan Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. “Her vast experience in ophthalmologic public health is unsurpassed, and she thinks about our vision and our eyes on a population scale that others just don’t see.”

West received her doctoral degree in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 1980 and joined the Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, becoming a professor in 1997 and the El Maghraby Professor of Preventive Ophthalmology in 1999.

She has published more than 270 articles in the field of public health ophthalmology and has received several awards for her research. Notably, she was a recipient of a Research to Prevent Blindness Senior Scientific Investigator award, which she has used for her research into preventing trachoma. West is an internationally respected expert on trachoma and has chaired the World Health Organization Global Alliance for Elimination of Blinding Trachoma by 2020.

The 2012 Voices from the Vanguard series continues on March 20 with a lecture by Dr. Marc LaForce, who has spent the past 10 years developing a meningitis vaccine for Africa that is both effective and inexpensive. The 2012 series concludes on April 17 with field biologist and biodiversity expert Matt LeBreton of the Global Virus Forecasting Initiative, who looks for emerging infectious scourges among bush meat hunters and indigenous populations in Cameroon.

All lectures will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the UGA Chapel, followed by a reception at Demosthenian Hall.

The “Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard” lecture series is a joint effort of Patricia Thomas, UGA’s Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Daniel G. Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. For additional information, see