NPR: Rewards — And Risks — Of Using Antibiotics As Silver Bullet For Kids In Africa
Researchers pursuing a simple, cheap way to dramatically reduce childhood deaths in sub-Saharan Africa released some promising new results today — but it's still unclear whether their approach might ultimately put more children at a disadvantage in fighting off serious diseases.
The story starts in 2009, when a group of ophthalmologists from the University of California-San Francisco published some surprising results from a study they had conducted in Ethiopia on trachoma, an eye infection that's the world's leading cause of preventable blindness. The eye doctors knew that the antibiotic azithromycin was effective in fighting the disease and had administered it to tens of thousands of children there, ages 1 to 9. Meanwhile, they wanted to keep watch on whether the drug seemed to have any other beneficial effects on the children's health.
What they found was remarkable: Mass azithromycin treatment, administered two times a year, seemed to have an almost miraculous ability to reduce childhood deaths. In Ethiopia, 58 babies per 1,000 births don't survive past the age of 5. That's lower than the sub-Saharan Africa average of 76 but still far higher than in Europe or the U.S. (where the rate is around 6 per 1,000). But in groups of children treated with azithromycin, the mortality rate was half that of untreated groups.