Jimmy Carter works for global end to blindness caused by houseflies

Tue Nov 5, 2013 5:01pm EST
 
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By Ransdell Pierson

(Reuters) - As Jimmy Carter approaches 90, he is reaching for victory in a 15-year war against an infection spread by houseflies that blinds millions in developing countries and posed a threat to his own family and neighbors as a child on a Georgia farm.

"Our goal is to eliminate blinding trachoma from the face of the earth by 2020," the former U.S. president said during a visit on Tuesday to the New York headquarters of Pfizer Inc, which donates the antibiotic Zithromax used to treat the disease.

Trachoma, the world's leading cause of preventable blindness, affects more than 20 million people worldwide, of whom about 2.2 million are visually impaired and 1.2 million are blind, according to the World Health Organization.

The disease is caused when houseflies, attracted to the moist eye, spread Chlamydia bacteria. It is spread further through contact with eye discharges on towels, fingers or other infected surfaces.

After years of untreated trachoma infections, the eyelids turn inward and scrape the cornea, causing blindness. The disease was eliminated in the United States in the 1970s but is still a threat to an estimated 320 million people worldwide, especially in developing nations, according to Pfizer.

Largely through the combined efforts of the Carter Center and an independent nonprofit program called the International Trachoma Initiative co-founded by Pfizer in 1998, blindness associated with the disease may have been eradicated in Morocco and Ghana.

But blinding trachoma remains a threat in other developing nations, especially Ethiopia, where almost a third of the population is considered at risk.

"When you go to a village, quite often from a distance you see children and think they're wearing eyeglasses," Carter said. "And you get close to them and you see instead of eyeframes, it's a circle of flies around their eyeballs sucking out moisture. That causes the disease and they don't even know that they should wash their faces."   Continued...

 
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attends a news conference in New York November 5, 2013. REUTERS/Adam Hunger