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Aetiology of microbial keratitis in northern Tanzania
  1. T R G Poole1,
  2. D L Hunter1,
  3. E M K Maliwa2,
  4. A R C Ramsay3
  1. 1Department of Ophthalmology, Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre, Moshi, Tanzania, Africa
  2. 2Department of Microbiology
  3. 3Clinical Laboratory
  1. Correspondence to: Mr Poole; trgp{at}

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The incidence of corneal blindness caused by microbial keratitis in the developing world is far higher than that in the developed world.1 Microbial keratitis has become a more prominent cause of corneal blindness in east Africa as the uptake of measles immunisation improves, reducing measles keratitis scarring, and with improved recognition and treatment of vitamin A deficiency, reducing its associated xerophthalmia and subsequent corneal scarring.

It has been shown that in tropical climates, keratitis of fungal aetiology is much more prevalent than in temperate climates.2,3 Little information is available about microbial keratitis in east Africa. The aim of this study was to identify the causative organisms of the condition seen in patients presenting to the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC) hospital in northern Tanzania, east Africa. KCMC is one of the largest hospitals in Tanzania, situated on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, serving five regions in northern and central Tanzania—Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Singida, Tanga, and Dodoma with a population of approximately eight million people.

Clinical cases

Patients referred to, or presenting for the first time to, KCMC with clinical signs of microbial keratitis, were prospectively recruited to the study, between May 1997 and April 1998. Patients with corneal ulceration without infiltration were excluded. These consisted of three patients with herpes simplex keratitis, two patients with Mooren’s ulcer, and one patient with a neurotrophic ulcer. Two patients with secondary infection of a recent penetrating corneal injury were excluded. Two children were unable to undergo slit lamp examination and corneal scraping for microbiology specimens and were also excluded from the study.

Forty four corneal ulcers were seen. Thirty eight of the patients had visual acuity in the affected eye of 6/60 or worse, and the mean greatest diameter of the infiltrate on presentation was 5.1 mm. Organisms were cultured from 24 of the 44 ulcers (54.6%). Fifty per cent of positive cultures were fungal. Larger diameter ulcers were more likely to be culture positive and have poorer outcomes: mean ulcer diameter was 6.0 mm in culture positive ulcers and 3.7 mm in culture negative ulcers. Fungal growth had been predicted by positive microscopy for fungal elements in nine of the 12 cases that grew fungi (75%), and there was never positive fungal microscopy without fungal growth. All five Gram positive isolates had had Gram positive cocci identified on Gram staining initially but, in contrast, there were three cases where Gram positive cocci were initially seen on Gram staining, but cultures had grown other organisms (two fungi, one Gram negative bacilli). Full details are shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Details of 44 patients presenting with microbial keratitis at KCMC


In this study fungal keratitis accounted for 50% of culture positive cases of microbial keratitis in northern Tanzania, with the majority of these cases (42%) yielding pure fungal isolates on culture. These figures are similar to those published from west Africa, where 56% of microbial keratitis was caused alone or in part by fungi.3 As in studies from the United States,4 west Africa,3 and southern India,2 the most common genus of fungus isolated was that of the filamentous fungus Fusarium.

There may have been a bias towards fungal ulcers in this study. KCMC is a referral centre, receiving severe ulcers from primary care centres, where topical antibacterial treatments are generally available and topical antifungal treatments are generally not. If the culture negative ulcers were predominantly bacterial ulcers, the relative frequency of fungal keratitis in this study would be artificially high. However culture negative ulcers had had a similar range of treatments to culture positive ulcers before presenting to KCMC, as can be seen from Table 1. There is no evidence to suggest the culture negative ulcers were predominantly of (treated) bacterial rather than fungal aetiology.

Study design limitations precluded any estimation of prevalence of microbial keratitis in the region, which would have been useful. The findings relate to northern and part of central Tanzania; with a similar climate, risk factors and primary care set up, the aetiology of microbial keratitis is likely to be similar in the wider region. The study set out to test for acanthamoeba antigen as part of the microbiological examination, but this became impossible after logistical difficulties.

The most important factor in outcome was the initial size of the ulcer on examination. Larger ulcers were more likely to be culture positive and to have a poor outcome, such as a blinding corneal scar or requiring evisceration. Culture results were nevertheless useful in ascertaining antibiotic sensitivities, and in adding antifungal treatment where necessary. Any patient undergoing evisceration had usually been an inpatient for several weeks with a painful blind eye, had tried multiple treatment regimens, and had often requested evisceration himself. The overall rate of evisceration was 25%. Although there is little published material on outcomes of microbial keratitis in the developing world, this figure compares with a series of culture positive fungal ulcers in Madurai, India, where 20% were classified as “severe, with little prospect of recovery”.5

Clearly, awareness of proper treatment regimens in northern Tanzania is paramount, particularly at the place of first contact, the village health centre, to prevent this overall picture of severe corneal ulcers with very poor visual prognosis. Treatment regimens should also take into account the high proportion of fungal keratitis. Microscopy looking specifically for fungal elements is a simple, quick, and useful test that could help direct initial treatment, along with clinical appearances suggestive of fungal infection. This might be more economically viable and practical than blanket coverage of all keratitis with an antifungal topical treatment in the first line therapy. Unfortunately consistently effective antifungal topical treatments are not widely available in this part of Africa.

Future studies could examine the efficacy of current treatments for fungal keratitis and how best to improve awareness of appropriate treatment regimens in the region.


This work was supported by grants from the British Council for the Prevention of Blindness and The Ulverscroft Foundation.

We are grateful to the hospital director, the staff, and the patients of KCMC for their collaboration in the above study.