updated 9/1/2009 4:03:49 PM ET 2009-09-01T20:03:49

An antibiotic widely used in Africa to treat eyesight-robbing infections seems to help prevent Ethiopian children from dying of other diseases.

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A study in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association suggests an unintended benefit from efforts to wipe out trachoma, the world's leading preventable cause of blindness.

The World Health Organization has set 2020 as the target for eliminating trachoma. The United States has been free of the disease since the 1970s, but it persists in 48 countries. In Ethiopia, a hotbed, 40 percent of children under 10 show signs of active trachoma.

"Trachoma is almost part of the definition of poverty," said study co-author Paul Emerson of the Atlanta-based Carter Center. "Its victims are forgotten and without political voice, which is why this finding is so tremendously exciting."

The researchers compared villages where children received the antibiotic Zithromax to villages where treatment was delayed a year. The antibiotic cut the death rate in half, and the researchers speculate it helped prevent deaths from pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, the biggest killers of Ethiopian children.

Among about 13,000 children in treated villages, there were 45 deaths. Among the 5,100 children in villages where treatment was delayed, there were 37 deaths.

Trachoma is caused by bacteria that spreads to the eyes from fingers, clothing or, some researchers think, from flies. Blindness develops over decades through repeated infections and scarring.

"Anything that has potential to reduce mortality is of large interest," said trachoma researcher Sheila West of Johns Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore. West was not involved in the new research.

The study would be stronger if it had compared death rates before and after the antibiotic treatment, she said. And she was puzzled there wasn't much difference in death rates among groups treated once, twice or four times during the year.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The International Trachoma Initiative supplied the antibiotic through donations from drugmaker Pfizer Inc.

The trachoma program of the Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, implemented the treatment and hosted the research.

"This study shows trachoma control goes far beyond blindness prevention — it also saves lives," the former president said in a statement.

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