Microbial keratitis in Malawi

Research details

  • Type of funding: Fight for Sight Small Grant Award
  • Grant Holder: Dr Tobi Somerville
  • Institute: University of Liverpool
  • Region: North West
  • Start date: February 2017
  • End Date: October 2019
  • Priority: Early detection
  • Eye Category: Corneal & external


Microbial keratitis is an infection of the cornea (the transparent front part of the eye) that may lead to ulcers, scarring and loss of sight. The risk factors and specific viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause MK are unknown in Malawi. This means that treatment is limited and outcomes are poor.

One of the barriers to identifying the organisms has been that it’s difficult to collect samples from the cornea. This has depended on using sharp instruments and specialist equipment, which are not available in resource-deprived settings like in Malawi.

The aim of this study is to assess how well a recent new way to collect samples from the cornea can be used in this setting. It doesn’t need specialist equipment and is less traumatic for the patient.

Dr Somerville will work alongside a team of researchers based in Blantyre, the largest city within the Southern Regions of Malawi. They aim to include in the study everyone with suspected MK who attends two of the local hospitals over a 3-month period.

The team will record participants’ age, sex, previous eye health, test their vision, examine the eye and record details of the ulcer. Then they’ll take samples from the ulcer using their ‘corneal impression membrane’ (filter paper applied to the front of the eye) and take it to the lab for testing.

If the projects shows that this method of collecting samples and identifying microbes is successful in Malawi, the team will then be able to do the same in other resource-deprived locations. This will help to give people more accurate treatment and prevent blindness.