By Elizabeth Kurylo
I saw trachoma in Uganda, where a man and his four children walked for hours before retreating inside a remote health clinic, hoping to receive medicine to stop the agonizing eye pain from bright sunlight, and Ethiopia, where women struggled to take care of children because they could only find comfort in darkness. My ITI colleagues saw it in Guinea and South Sudan. Former President Jimmy Carter saw it as a child growing up on his family’s farm in South Georgia. It is remarkable to think this blinding eye disease was once prevalent in the United States and now we’re trying to eliminate it from the face of the Earth.
“Trachoma is a disease I knew as a child,” the former president, 89, said recently. Growing up on the family farm in Plains, Ga., Carter was used to swatting flies away from his face. His mother, a registered nurse, knew to keep his face clean, because flies transmit disease and are attracted to dirty faces. Although Carter never had trachoma, he remembers having sore eyes almost all the time, and he understands the agony of trachoma, an infectious eye disease he is helping to eliminate. It is a leading cause of blindness and suffering in the poorest regions of the world. Approximately 320 million people worldwide are at risk for contracting it, with about 7 million suffering from the advanced, blinding stage of the disease. It blinds one person every 15 minutes.
For 15 years, Pfizer has donated medicine to treat and prevent trachoma in 28 countries in Africa and Asia. More than 340 million doses of the antibiotic Zithromax® have been distributed through the International Trachoma Initiative, where I work. On November 5, Pfizer hosted a ceremony at its Manhattan headquarters to mark ITI’s 15th anniversary. The event drew Pfizer employees from different offices around the world via videolink as well as representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are part of the global campaign to eliminate trachoma. Carter said Pfizer’s donation of Zithromax® was "momentous in trachoma control,” and added that it allowed the Carter Center and other NGOs to “get the medicine into the villages and demonstrate the world could end blinding trachoma."
The Carter Center, Pfizer, and ITI support the World Health Organization-led Global Alliance for the Elimination of Trachoma by 2020. The international trachoma campaign uses the SAFE strategy, approved by the WHO, to prevent and treat trachoma. SAFE stands for: Surgery to prevent blindness; Antibiotics to treat active infections; Facial cleanliness; and Environmental improvements, such as latrines to reduce the breeding grounds of flies that help spread the disease.
Carter said his nonprofit Carter Center is responsible for the construction of 2.6 million latrines in trachoma-endemic countries in Africa. “With the help of Pfizer, we are trying to eliminate blinding trachoma from the face of the earth by 2020. I think we have a very good chance of reaching this goal,” Carter said.
In the early 1900s, trachoma could be found in New York City, where Pfizer is located. It was eliminated from the United States in the 1970s. Carter said every Pfizer colleague should be proud of the progress and success of trachoma elimination programs. “Millions of people worldwide will be spared the injustice, indignity and pain of their eyelashes scratching and scarring their eyes," he said.
The Carter Center marked another milestone a week after the Pfizer celebration. On November 10, the 100 millionth dose of Zithromax® was distributed in Amhara Region, Ethiopia, during a celebration with the Ethiopian government, Pfizer, ITI, the Lions Clubs International Foundation and Lions of Ethiopia, and other partners. The Amhara Region is thought to be the most trachoma-endemic area in the world, and together the partners are actively working to demonstrate that blinding trachoma can be eliminated from a highly endemic country.
At the 15th Anniversary event in New York, Pfizer CEO Ian Read praised The Carter Center’s support as key to the success of trachoma elimination efforts. Carter said once people in villages are engaged and have the resources to change the situation, they are eager to have better lives. “Once you can teach people in a village what needs to be done to do away with trachoma, they are much more eager than any of us in this room to see it done,” Carter said.