For many people, the disease tuberculosis evokes images of the sickly child-protagonists of Victorian novels, bed-bound with “consumption”.
But recent research has revealed rapidly rising rates of a resilient strain of the disease, Multidrug Resistant TB, across Asia and Africa as well as some of the wealthiest cities in the world - including London, now dubbed the “tuberculosis capital of Europe”.
The medical humanitarian organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), announced today that a concerted international effort is needed to combat the disease as alarming new data suggests the scale of the Multidrug Resistant TB crisis is much more vast than previously estimated.
In South Africa, where the TB burden is one of the highest worldwide, MSF has reported a 211% increase in TB diagnosis per month in its program in KwaZulu Natal, following the introduction of a new rapid diagnostic test. Of those patients confirmed with TB, 13.2% were resistant to the drug rifampicin, one of the most effective first-line drugs for treating TB.
Multidrug resistant TB is a form of TB that does not respond to standard treatments and takes around two years to treat using highly toxic drugs.
MDR-TB initially developed in patients being treated for drug-sensitive TB, when they failed to complete their course of drugs or their treatment was interrupted or incorrectly managed.
However, patients that have never had TB before are now presenting with MDR-TB, suggesting it is now transmitting in its own right.
“Wherever we look for drug resistant TB we are finding it in alarming numbers, suggesting current statistics may only be scratching the surface of the problem,” said MSF President Dr. Unni Karunakara.
“With 95% of TB patients worldwide lacking access to proper diagnosis, efforts to scale-up detection of MDR-TB are being severely undermined by a retreat in donor funding – precisely when increased funding is needed most.”
MSF is calling on governments, international donors and drug companies to fight the spread of the disease with new financing and efforts to develop effective and affordable diagnostic tools and drugs.
“We need new drugs, new research, new programmes, and a new commitment from international donors and governments to tackle this deadly disease,” said Dr. Karunakara.
“Only then, will more people be tested, treated and cured. The world can no longer sit back and ignore the threat of MDR-TB. We must act now.”
In 2010, 8.8m people had TB and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has predicted that more than 2m people will contract MDR-TB by 2015, it was reported by Reuters.
The WHO will be meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether the strains of TB that are apparently resistant to all known medicines should be classified as “totally-resistant TB”.
This Saturday (24 March) is World TB Day, which raises public awareness that TB remains an epidemic in much of the world, causing the deaths of several million people each year. It commemorates the day in 1882 when Dr Robert Koch announced that he had discovered the cause of tuberculosis.