March 22, 2004,
As if Europe didn't have enough to worry about these days with terrorist attacks and concerns over wobbly-kneed democracies, a new survey released earlier this month by the World Health Organization has found that there are 300,000 new cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis a year in the world, and 79 percent of them are "superstrains," meaning they are resistant to our best currently available treatments. The BBC reported that these developments "pose a major threat to the EU."
Tuberculosis gets almost no attention in the Western media despite being the planet's most deadly infectious disease. And now a particularly deadly strain of the bacterial infection, Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB), is fueling the resurgence in TB fatalities.
Adding to the worry is how TB often works in concert with HIV/AIDS. "People who are infected with HIV are uniquely susceptible to TB," says Dr. Reichman. Those with HIV/AIDS are 800 times more likely to have their TB activated due to weakened immunity. As Dr. Reichman says, "AIDS and TB are like gasoline and a match."
Dr. Reichman, who has been on the frontlines of the TB fight, puts it this way: "Although it sounds harsh, anti-TB drugs must be restricted so that they are used only in good programs. Otherwise easy access to one drug or another will mean that more patients develop resistance and spread the TB."
That's why the issue of health infrastructure is so critical to combating disease around the globe. Without proper clinics, doctors, electrification, refrigeration, record keeping, and doctor-patient follow-through, the disease will metastasize.
Ultimately, increasing wealth in the developing world is the key to keeping infectious diseases under control. In the meantime, as with AIDS, preserving a thriving research and technology-based drug-development system is one of the only hopes for combating MDR-TB. And governments must work in concert with aid groups, industry, and charities to make sure treatment is thorough and to avoid making a deadly situation worse.