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Jimmy Carter Fights to Eliminate Eye Disease That Plagued His Childhood

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was at Pfizer Headquarters in Manhattan on November 5th to honor the 15th anniversary of the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), a non-for-profit program dedicated to eliminating the eye disease as a public health concern by 2020. Trachoma is a bacterial infection, often spread by houseflies, and it stands as the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world. Carter spoke of his experience with trachoma as a child growing up on a farm in Georgia in the 1920s and 30s. “I was always afflicted with houseflies around my eyes,” Carter said. “I had sore eyes, [which could have developed] into an infection that turns your upper eyelid inward. So every time you blink your eye, your eyelashes slash your cornea, and that causes blindness. It’s a terrible affliction that can be avoided with proper treatment.” Luckily for Carter, his mother was a nurse who always made him wash his face to rid the flies.

Trachoma was eliminated the U.S. in the late 1970s, though it remains endemic in many countries in Asia and Africa. The Carter Center has been working with ITI to improve water access, hygiene education and availability of the antibiotic Zithromax in these regions.

On November 10, the Carter Center expects to distribute its 100 millionth dose of Zithromax in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, which is believed to be the world’s most trachoma-endemic area. Pfizer has provided more than 340 million doses of Zithromax to date. “The Pfizer donation of Zithromax was momentous in trachoma control, and the Carter Center was pleased to go to scale in trachoma-endemic countries to get the medicine into the villages and demonstrate the world could end blinding trachoma,” Carter said during a celebration with partners, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Pfizer employees.

The main goal now in treating the disease is pooling funds and increasing awareness, says Paul Emerson, director of the Carter Center’s Trachoma Control Program. “Political leaders in endemic countries are often unaware of the disease, because the disease has fallen off the political landscape. The leaders will literally trip over people infected with HIV who are begging them for money on their way to work, but people with trachoma are off in the bush. So, they are forgotten about.”

Trachoma is a completely treatable condition, and we can kick trachoma’s ass, and nobody needs to suffer the indignity of having their own eyelashes scratch out their eye,” Emerson says.

About the Author: Julianne Chiaet writes about science and technology.  Follow her on Twitter @JuliChiaet





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