Antibiotics for trachoma

  • Review
  • Intervention




Trachoma is the world's leading cause of preventable blindness. In 1997 the World Health Organization launched an initiative on trachoma control based on the 'SAFE' strategy (surgery, antibiotics, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement).


The aim of this review is 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 infection of the conjunctiva (secondary objective).

Search strategy

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Register - CENTRAL (which contains the Cochrane Eyes and Vision Group Trials Register) (The Cochrane Library Issue 4, 2004), MEDLINE (1966 to April 2004), and EMBASE (1980 to May 2004). 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.

Selection criteria

We included only 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 with trachoma, (b) trials in which a topical antibiotic was compared with an oral antibiotic in people with trachoma. A subdivision of particular interest was of trials in which topical tetracycline/chlortetracycline was compared with oral azithromycin, as these are the two World Health Organization recommended treatments.

Data collection and analysis

Two reviewers independently assessed trial quality and extracted data. We contacted investigators for missing data.

Main results

We found 15 studies that randomised a total of 8678 participants. For both outcomes (active trachoma and laboratory evidence of infection) the results of the chi squared tests suggested that there was significant statistical heterogeneity among the trials. There was also marked clinical heterogeneity. No summary statistics were calculated and we therefore present a narrative summary of the results. For the comparisons of oral or topical antibiotic against placebo/no treatment, the data are consistent with there being no effect of antibiotics but are suggestive of a lowering of the point prevalence of relative risk of both active disease and laboratory evidence of infection at three and 12 months after treatment. For the comparison of oral against topical antibiotics the results suggest that oral treatment is neither more nor less effective than topical treatment.

Authors' conclusions

There is some evidence that antibiotics reduce active trachoma but results are not consistent and cannot be pooled.

Plain language summary


Some evidence that antibiotics reduce trachoma

Trachoma is the most common cause of preventable vision loss and is common in children living in poor communities. Repeated bouts of conjunctivitis (inflammation of the membranes of the eyes) caused by chlamydia infection eventually lead scarring and inturning 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 in an ointment or as a tablet. The review found some evidence that antibiotics reduce trachoma. Ointment is neither better nor worse than tablets.