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Plan underway to squash preventable blindness disease

LONDON (Reuters) -- Pilot studies in Morocco and Tanzania have more than halved the number of cases of trachoma as doctors start a drive to eliminate the world's biggest cause of preventable blindness.

The success of the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), health experts said Monday, means the plan will be extended to other countries where the bacterial infection threatens millions of people with blindness, including patients in Ghana, Mali, Sudan and Vietnam.

"The results show a reduced prevalence by about 50 percent ..." Dr Joseph Cook, of the ITI, said in a telephone interview.

"In Morocco the fall was really very impressive, from 28 percent to 6.5 and a complete absence of severe disease in children. In Tanzania it varies, depending on the communities sampled, from 50 to 83 percent reduction," he said.

According to the World Health Organization, 150 million people are infected with the disease worldwide and six million have been blinded by it. It is most common where poor hygiene and lack of water are problems.

The ITI, a public/private alliance between the New York-based charity the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and U.S. drug giant Pfizer Inc., was set up two years ago to battle trachoma, which afflicts the poorest people living in the remotest parts of the world.

The scheme takes a four-pronged approach combining surgery for severe disease, a once-yearly dose of Pfizer Inc.'s oral antibiotic Zithromax, face washing and improvements in oral hygiene and sanitation.

It is funded through free donations of the drug by Pfizer, which also contributes $6 million to operating costs, $6 million from the Edna McConnell Clark and $20 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations and $1 million from Britain's Department for International Development.

The ITI will be the centerpiece of the WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by 2020.

"I'm quite confident we will meet that target," Dr Serge Resnikoff of the WHO told Reuters.

"The strategy is working," he said. "This kind of four-pronged approach combining public health intervention, public health education and medical intervention is the key to success in many other conditions."

The trachoma bacteria are usually transmitted within families, particularly those with small children, and cause a sticky discharge from the eye. Recurring infection results in scarring, damage to the cornea of the eye and blindness.

Women are two or three times more likely to be blinded by the disease than men because of their close contact with children.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



RELATED STORIES:
Red Cross warns of threat from preventable diseases
June 28, 2000
Carter sees worthy cause in fighting eye disease in Africa
October 23, 1999
Webcast aims to raise awareness of blindness as global problem
October 14, 1999

RELATED SITES:
International Trachoma Initiative (ITI)
WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma
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