Researchers Find Preventive Use of Antibiotics Could Save Large Numbers of African Children

A study conducted in Africa and led by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, has found that the preventive use of a common antibiotic can have a major positive impact on mortality rates of children under the age of 5.

Researchers conducted a trial where they gave a single dose of the antibiotic azithromycin four times over a two-year period to a group of children in the African nations of Malawi, Tanzania, and Niger. Other children were given a placebo. The study included about 190,000 children.

The results showed that the mortality rate for children in communities that received the antibiotic was 13.5 percent lower than the rate for children in the communities that received the placebo. The largest effects were seen in Niger, where more than 10 percent of children die by their fifth birthday. Child mortality in the azithromycin-treated communities there fell by 18 percent. The youngest children in the study, those most vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, benefited the most from receiving azithromycin. Deaths among one to five-month-olds fell by nearly 25 percent, nearly double the rate of the group overall.

“The study shows we can prevent young children from dying with a simple intervention,” said Jeremy Keenan, the study’s first author. “We could scale our newly studied intervention to reach millions of vulnerable children in resource-poor countries.” Dr. Keenan is a professor of ophthalmology and director of international programs at the Francis I. Proctor Foundation at the University of California, San Francisco.

The full study, “Azithromycin to Reduce Childhood Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It may be accessed here.

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