A trachoma-free world is within reach, but challenges remain in eliminating the disease from all endemic countries by 2020.
That’s the assessment of Paul Emerson, PhD, director of the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI) at The Task Force for Global Health. At a June 6-8 meeting of the Trachoma Expert Committee (TEC), Emerson and other experts took stock of progress toward eliminating trachoma, which is the leading infectious cause of blindness.
“The scale-up and progress implementation from trachoma elimination has been nothing short of phenomenal,” said Emerson. “The challenge in front of us now is knowing in which areas we need to continue implementation efforts and in which areas we can stop.”
At its June meeting, the TEC reviewed 29 country applications for the antibiotic drug Zithromax® that is distributed as part of comprehensive programs to eliminate trachoma. A total of 127 million doses were approved – the largest amount in a single year. This medicine will go to countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South America, where trachoma remains a public health problem.
In recent years, the global trachoma elimination program has scaled up significantly to a point now where the global need for drug is being met.
Since 2011, the number of people burdened by trachoma has declined significantly from 375 million people requiring treatment for the disease to 182 million people today.
“This is remarkable progress, and would not have been possible without the steadfast commitment of, and open collaboration between, endemic countries, partner organizations, the World Health Organization, and donors,” said Emerson. “Despite this unprecedented progress and the millions of individuals reached so far, even more work remains to achieve our shared goal of a trachoma-free world.”
Dr. Babar Qureshi, a TEC member and the director of neglected tropical diseases and senior medical advisor at CBM, believes the 2020 goal can be met “to a large extent.” But he said some high prevalence areas where programs only just started may need more time to reach the elimination goal.
Emerson cited other challenges to reaching the elimination goal including political instability, humanitarian crises, environmental threats, and hard-to-reach populations. By 2020, an estimated 71 million people will still be at risk for the disease, but this represents a 78 percent decrease from 2011 levels.
The TEC is an independent body of internationally recognized experts in the fields of public health, neglected tropical diseases, and blindness prevention that meets twice yearly to review country applications for antibiotic treatments. In 2016, Pfizer donated 120 million treatments of Zithromax® valued at $3.2 billion for the elimination of trachoma as a public health problem.