The New England Journal of Medicine published today a study entitled "Mass Treatment with Single-Dose Azithromycin for Trachoma."
The study, conducted among villagers suffering from blinding trachoma in rural Tanzania, highlights the effectiveness of azithromycin (Zithromax) in reducing infection rates of trachoma, the world's leading cause of preventable blindness. Globally, more than 84 million people have active trachoma infection, and eight million people are visually impaired as a result of the disease.
"Trachoma has been one of humankind's most challenging public health problems for centuries," said Hank McKinnell, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, during a recent visit to Tanzania, where Pfizer is involved in a major trachoma prevention initiative. "Based on the progress to date, it is now realistic to hope for something that was unimaginable just a few years ago-that within the next 20 years ... no one, anywhere in the world, is ever blinded by trachoma again."
Pfizer donates Zithromax through the non-profit organization the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), which collaborates with Ministries of Health and other partners to implement sustainable trachoma control programs. ITI currently supports programs in 11 countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nepal, Niger, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, and Vietnam. To date, more than 17 million antibiotic treatments have been delivered free of charge to vulnerable populations.
"We are winning the fight against blindness from trachoma because we have an extraordinary strategy and effective partnerships in our program countries," said Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, ITI President. "Building on the momentum of our achievements to date, we are broadening the scope of the trachoma programs already in place and will support additional country programs."
In the 1990s, the World Health Organization endorsed a public health strategy called SAFE to eliminate blinding trachoma by the year 2020. Pfizer's Zithromax is a key component of the SAFE strategy: Surgery to correct advanced stages of the disease; Antibiotics to treat active infection; Face washing to reduce disease transmission; and Environmental change to increase access to clean water and improve sanitation.
Pfizer-donated Zithromax has provided a major boost to trachoma control efforts in Africa and Asia. Before Zithromax, tetracycline eye ointment was the only drug available to treat trachoma infections. As a topical preparation, however, tetracycline does not effectively treat all stages of infection and with a complicated treatment schedule of two applications daily for six weeks, is difficult and costly to administer. The effectiveness of a single annual dose of Zithromax, as reaffirmed in this latest study in Tanzania, has significantly accelerated progress toward the elimination of this disease.
Trachoma is a highly infectious disease of the eye caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. It affects the inner upper eyelid and cornea. Repeated infections scar and distort the inner upper eyelid, causing the eyelashes to turn inwards and scratch the cornea, gradually leading to blindness. Trachoma affects rural populations with limited access to health care and clean water, and it disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of these underserved populations -- women and children.
ITI currently also receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Starr Foundation, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and other donors.