By Agustin Caceres

Antibiotics are known for helping control bacterial infections in both children and adults. But antibiotics are also known for some of their side effects: diarrhea, allergic reactions, collateral infections… But what if an antibiotic could have a positive side effect in the development of malnourished children aged 1-5 in developing countries? I read about this idea when I found an article published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which talks about some unexpected findings related to the use of one of the most commonly-used antibiotics, azithromycin. This drug is widely used to fight trachoma, a Neglected Tropical Disease that is sadly the most common infectious cause of blindness, and that still affects poor communities in some areas of Latin America like Chiapas (Mexico) and Southern Colombia.

This antibiotic has proven effective in the treatment of this disease thanks to different studies since the early 90s. But the surprise came when three years ago, a study published at University of California in San Francisco showed that all-cause mortality in children aged 1-5 years was reduced by almost 50% in Ethiopian communities in which all children received an annual dose of azithromycin.

Now, a team lead by Professor David Mabey has been awarded a $10m grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to study the impact of the antibiotic on child mortality in three countries in Africa: Niger, Tanzania and Malawi. The funds will support the study of the mechanism underlying this finding, by looking at the effect of azithromycin on the function of the bowel, the absorption of nutrients, and on the growth of babies in Malawi.

Hopefully this study will help find a new solution to the challenge of identifying the causes of slow growth during the first 1,000 days of life of a little boy or girl. The positive effects of deworming among children and the use of micronutrients have been widely demonstrated. What if this antibiotic could reduce multiple infections and therefore help absorb nutrients better, improving the growth and early development of kids? Stay tuned to the work of these researchers to find out more.

Agustin Caceres is a Communications and Outreach consultant at the Social Protection and Health Division of the IDB in Washington DC.


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