Viagra makers donate antibiotics to beat blindness

PFIZER, the manufacturer of Viagra, has announced the largest philanthropic donation in its history to help eliminate a disease that has blinded millions of people worldwide.

The pharmaceutical company, which has made millions from its anti-impotence drug, is to give free supplies of its antibiotic Zithromax as part of a $65m (pounds 40m) campaign to eradicate trachoma, a bacterial disease of the eyelid that infects an estimated 146 million people worldwide. The infection is thesecond major cause of blindness after cataracts.

Trachoma can be prevented by simple face-washing, provided there is access to clean water. In infected people, the condition can be controlled by a single dose of Zithromax taken orally once a year. The drug, used as a general antibiotic in Britain, costs the NHS pounds 10.99 for a course.

In its advanced stages, trachoma causes the upper eyelid to turn inward so that the eyelashes scratch the cornea, causing pain and blindness. The only treatment then is to stitch the eyelid so it cannot turn inward.

An estimated 5.9 million people worldwide have been blinded or are at immediate risk ofblindness as a result of trachoma, and 540 million are at risk of developing the disease. Trachoma is endemic in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America.

The International Trachoma Initiative is co-ordinated by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and Pfizer. It will be launched initially in Morocco, Mali, Ghana, Tanzania and Vietnam.

Joseph Cook, managing director of the foundation, said: "Trachoma was eliminated in the West in the early part of the 20th century. Now the hygienic and environmental changes [that led to eradication of the disease] can eliminate blinding trachoma as a health problem in the rest of the world."

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