Antibiotics reduce the prevalence of ocular infection with trachoma

Trachoma is common in people living in poor communities and is the most common infectious cause of vision loss. Repeated bouts of conjunctivitis (inflammation of the membranes of the eyes) caused by Chlamydia infection eventually lead to scarring and inward turning of the eyelid. The lashes rub on the cornea causing opacification and blindness. Antibiotics can be used to treat the Chlamydia infection and may be given as an ointment or by mouth. This review included 14 trials in 3587 people with ocular trachoma and eight community-based trials (67 communities). Antibiotic treatment reduce conjunctivitis caused by trachoma ('active trachoma') and ocular infection in individuals. Community-based trials provided evidence that azithromycin treatment reduces the prevalence of active trachoma and ocular Chlamydia infection.

Authors' conclusions: 

Antibiotic treatment reduces the risk of active trachoma and ocular chlamydial infection in people infected with C. trachomatis, but we do not know for certain the size of the treatment effect in individuals. Mass antibiotic treatment with single-dose oral azithromycin reduces the prevalence of active trachoma and ocular infection in communities.

Read the full abstract...

Trachoma is the world's leading infectious cause of blindness. In 1997 the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by the year 2020, based on the 'SAFE' strategy (surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement).


To assess the evidence supporting the antibiotic arm of the SAFE strategy by assessing the effects of antibiotics on both active trachoma (primary objective) and on Chlamydia trachomatis (C. trachomatis) infection of the conjunctiva (secondary objective).

Search strategy: 

We searched CENTRAL (which contains the Cochrane Eyes and Vision Group Trials Register) (The Cochrane Library 2010, Issue 11), MEDLINE (January 1950 to December 2010), EMBASE (January 1980 to December 2010), the metaRegister of Controlled Trials (mRCT) ( (December 2010) and ( (December 2010). We used the Science Citation Index to look for articles that cited the included studies. We searched the reference lists of identified articles and we contacted authors and experts for details of further relevant studies. There were no language or date restrictions in the search for trials. The electronic databases were last searched on 12 December 2010.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised trials that satisfied either of two criteria: (a) trials in which topical or oral administration of an antibiotic was compared to placebo or no treatment in people or communities with trachoma, (b) trials in which a topical antibiotic was compared with an oral antibiotic in people or communities with trachoma. A subdivision of particular interest was trials in which topical tetracycline or chlortetracycline and oral azithromycin were compared with each other, or in which one of these treatments was compared with placebo or no treatment, as these are the two WHO recommended antibiotics. We considered individually randomised and cluster-randomised trials separately.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed trial quality and extracted data. We contacted investigators for missing data. Where appropriate, the effect estimates from the individual studies (risk ratios) were pooled using a random-effects model.

Main results: 

A total of 14 trials randomised individuals with trachoma to oral antibiotic, topical antibiotic, both, or control (no treatment or placebo) and were eligible for inclusion in this review (n = 3587). Overall, the quality of the evidence provided from these trials was low. Nine of the trials compared antibiotic treatment to control. Most of the studies found a beneficial effect of treatment on active trachoma and ocular chlamydial infection at three and 12 months follow up. There was considerable clinical and statistical heterogeneity between trials, which meant that it was difficult to reliably estimate the size of the treatment effect. It is likely to be in the region of a 20% relative risk reduction. Seven of the 14 trials compared the effectiveness of oral and topical antibiotics. There was no consistent evidence as to whether oral or topical antibiotics were more effective, although one trial suggested that a single dose of oral azithromycin was significantly more effective than unsupervised use of topical tetracycline

A further eight trials assessed the effectiveness of community-based treatment. In five trials antibiotic treatment was compared to no (or delayed) treatment (57 communities), and in three trials oral antibiotic was compared to topical treatment (12 communities). The quality of the evidence provided by these trials was variable but at least one trial was considered to provide high quality evidence. There was evidence that community-based antibiotic treatment reduced the prevalence of active trachoma and ocular infection 12 months after single-dose treatment. There was some evidence that oral azithromycin was more effective than topical tetracycline as a community treatment. Data on adverse effects were not consistently reported however there were no reported serious adverse events associated with treatment with oral azithromycin or topical tetracycline; in one sample survey of 671 people treated with azithromycin between 10% and 15% experienced gastrointestinal adverse effects (nausea or vomiting, or both).