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Blinding trachoma: progress towards global elimination by 2020

Several countries are on track to eliminate the infectious eye disease, blinding trachoma, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today. This progress results from efforts to achieve the global goal set by the World Health Assembly in 1998 to eliminate this disabling disease by the year 2020.

The estimated number of people affected by trachoma has fallen from 360 million people in 1985 to approximately 80 million people today. This is the result of a concerted effort by the WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Blinding Trachoma (GET 2020) combined with socioeconomic development in endemic countries. Trachoma affects the poorest and most remote rural areas of 56 countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Australia and the Middle East.

At today’s 10th meeting of GET 2020, held at WHO Headquarters in Geneva, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mexico, Morocco and Oman have reported successfully implementing their national strategies of interventions necessary for eliminating trachoma, based on the WHO-recommended SAFE strategy. The WHO SAFE strategy emphasizes comprehensive public health action and stands for lid surgery (S), antibiotics to treat the infection (A), facial cleanliness (F); and environmental changes (E). If implemented comprehensively, the SAFE strategy could prevent virtually all cases of blindness from trachoma.

"This is very encouraging progress,” said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General. “If countries continue at this rate, the global goal to eliminate blinding trachoma as a public health problem by 2020 can be achieved.”

WHO is currently developing the specific epidemiological assessment criteria to determine when countries have fully eliminated blinding trachoma. The criteria are expected to be finalized by the end of 2006, at which time WHO will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of national strategies and provide country-by-country certification that the disease has been eliminated.

Blinding trachoma

Trachoma originates from an eye infection that is spread from person to person, is frequently passed from child to child and from child to mother within the family, especially in environmental conditions of water shortages, flies, and crowded households. Through the discharge from an infected person's eyes, trachoma is passed on by hands, on clothing, or by flies that land on the person's face. Infections often begin during infancy or childhood and become chronic. If left untreated, these infections eventually cause the eyelid to turn inward which in turn causes the eye lashes to rub on the eyeball, resulting in intense pain and scarring of the front of the eye. This ultimately leads to irreversible blindness, typically beginning between ages 30-40 and often resulting in deepening poverty for individuals and their families. Women are blinded two to three times more often than men, probably due to their close contact with affected children.

The alliance for the global elimination of blinding trachoma

Launched under WHO’s leadership in 1997, the Alliance for the Global Elimination of Blinding Trachoma by the Year 2020 (GET2020) is a partnership formed to support country implementation of the SAFE strategy. The Alliance is led by WHO and is open to members from all sectors – public, nongovernmental and commercial willing to work with governments to implement the SAFE strategy. Alliance members include WHO, national governments, nongovernmental organizations research institutions, foundations, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Pfizer Inc has been a key partner in the fight against trachoma. It has already donated through the International Trachoma Initiative 37 million doses of azithromycin and has committed to provide 100 million additional doses by 2008. Azithromycin is a long-acting antibiotic used as one component of the SAFE strategy.

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For more information contact:

Ms Alexandra Munro
Communications Officer
Telephone: +41 22 791 5053
Mobile phone: +41 79 754 7763

Dr Silvio P. Mariotti
Medical Officer
Telephone: +41 22 791 3491
Mobile phone: +41 79 217 3452