Trachoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness. The highly contagious eye disease affects 84 million people, largely in developing countries. A new study in the British journal The Lancet finds trachoma can be dramatically reduced with a strategy that promotes better hygiene, health education and antibiotic use.
In 2001 The Carter Center Trachoma Control Program enrolled 4,000 Sudanese children in the SAFE initiative, which is short for surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environment improvement. The program's Paul Emerson says it was introduced in four sites in the southern part of the country. "What we found was in areas where we had been successful in delivering the program, we saw 90 percent reductions."
Emerson says the results are even more astounding considering the program was run in the midst of a civil war. He says despite such turmoil, community volunteers stepped up to manage the program. "Periodically we could go in and give them the Pfizer-donated antibiotics." The Carter Center also provided health education materials and training, Emerson says, "but then we had to withdraw again. Meanwhile it is the people on the ground who were sustainably delivering the program."
While trachoma has been eradicated in the industrialized world, it remains a neglected disease elsewhere and competes for funds largely directly to malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. But Emerson says trachoma dollars are well spent, because strategies deployed to fight it target some of the same conditions that nurture the higher profile diseases. "If you can just imagine how useful it is for people to have a yearly dose of an antibiotic, plus hygiene promotion, plus access to water and sanitation and imagine what effect that is also having on diarrheal diseases, pneumonias and other conditions."
The Carter Center runs its trachoma program in six other African countries and plans to introduce it next in Ethiopia, the nation with the highest prevalence of the disease. Encouraged by its success in Sudan, the Center is confident that the strategy can produce similar results.