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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 10:50 GMT


Campaign targets leading cause of blindness

Mali is one of the countries targeted

An international initiative has been launched to combat an eye disease that has blinded 6 million people in the world's poorest countries.

Trachoma is a painful infection that is spread when children wipe their eyes and pass on the disease to others.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer has joined forces with health officials in five of the most afflicted nations to distribute an antibiotic that can successfully treat the disease.

The antibiotic known as Zithromax is so powerful that patients may need just one dose a year.

The campaign, to be launched in Ghana, Mali, Morocco, Tanzania and Vietnam, will also teach children that simply washing their faces with clean water will get rid of the infection.

Tremendous impact

[ image: Children spread disease by rubbing their eyes]
Children spread disease by rubbing their eyes
Pfizer spokeswoman Paula Luff said: "The disease is largely forgotten, but the impact is tremendous on families and communities."

Trachoma was once a worldwide threat. Napoleon's troops encountered it in Egypt in 1798. It blinded early Americans, and was one of the most common causes for rejecting would-be immigrants to the US at Ellis Island.

With improved sanitation, trachoma was eliminated from North America and Europe. But the disease remains the world's leading preventable cause of blindness, infecting 150 million people in developing countries.

The infection is spread person-to-person, mostly by children as they rub red, sticky eyes or flies pick up the germs from faces which have not been washed because clean water is so scarce.

Repeated infections over the years scar the upper eyelid, eventually causing the thin tissue to recede so that the eyelashes literally scratch the cornea, and in many cases cause blindness.

Some people wear tweezers around their necks to pluck the painful lashes, but they can grow back.

Painful treatment

Since the 1950s, treatment has meant applying an ointment of the antibiotic tetracycline directly to the eyes twice a day for six weeks.

Thick as toothpaste, the ointment stung and children in particular did not see the course of treatment through.

Now Pfizer-sponsored studies show that one dose of oral Zithromax, widely used to fight other infections, works just as well.

The new campaign will include:

  • Training nurses to perform a simple operation to stop the eyelashes damaging the eye.
  • Teaching children to wash their faces.
  • Distribution of Zithromax.
  • Water sanitation programmes.

The campaign has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, which hopes to eliminate the disease by 2020.

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