Major Assault on Blindness Planned

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A pharmaceutical company and a charitable foundation will team up to spend $66 million over the next 2 years to prevent blindness among millions of impoverished people worldwide. Pfizer Inc. and The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation announced at a press conference here today that they plan to formally initiate an attack on the leading cause of preventable blindness--trachoma--by providing antibiotics and hygiene education in five developing countries.

The bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis can blind adults after decades of recurrent eyelid infections. Although more-frequent face washing completely eliminated the scourge from the United States and Europe in the 19th century, the disease is endemic in many regions of the developing world that lack access to fresh water. "This is a disease that has fallen through the cracks of the public health system," says Michael Bailin, president of the New York-based Clark Foundation. Six million people are already or nearly blind, and another 150 million are infected with the bacteria.

In 1996, the Clark Foundation and Pfizer sponsored a pilot study in Morocco that combined one or two oral doses of Pfizer's long-lasting antibiotic, Zithromax, with education and increased access to clean water. In less than 2 years, the program had reduced disease incidence by nearly 80%. Now the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) will be expanded to include Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Vietnam, and more Moroccan provinces--all of which expressed interest in prevention. Pfizer expects each person to require only one dose of Zithromax every year; after wiping out active infection in a couple weeks, improved hygiene and a lower disease incidence in the community should minimize transmission.

"I'm optimistic that we have a breakthrough," says Sheila West, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the ITI Trachoma Expert Committee. More daunting than providing antibiotics, she says, will be reaching and educating the millions of people in need of these drugs and training them to use clean water efficiently.