Jeneen Interlandi writes in Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010 about the return of tuberculosis (TB), an infectious diseases that is thought to be well under control but is in fact returning with a vengeance to many countries around the world. While focus on infectious diseases has been placed heavily on HIV / AIDS and malaria, tuberculosis has been left “to fester” as it continues to kill on average 5000 people daily, much more than “swine flu has killed in the past year”.
Medication against tuberculosis has been present since 1944, but the tuberculosis bacterium continues to develop drug resistance to newer drugs over time. The development of MDR-TB (multi drug-resistant TB) and XDR-TB (extensively drug-resistant TB) has been a worrying trend, not just in poor continents like Africa where many infectious diseases continue to rage, but even in more developed regions like Eastern Europe. TB specialists argue that money for research into curing TB is insufficient, and most of the research focus on infectious diseases is on other “headline” diseases like HIV / AIDS. This old but still strong bacterium is “exposing all the cracks in our multi billion-dollar global health system”.
Solutions? One that is already being undertaken by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to tackle TB together with HIV / AIDS, since the reduced immunity of these patients will make them especially susceptible to TB. This approach does seem to have its own problems, as manifested in Swaziland.
Hence a more comprehensive solution needs to be developed that prevents diseases from occurring in the first place: “clean water, nutritious food and functioning clinics”. Vaccine development and drug discovery needs to continue, but we should not forget the real basis that will bring about good health in the first place, especially in disease-ravaged continents such as Africa. We cannot afford to ignore XDR-TB, in particular, because while it has high mortality rates of 90%, patients “usually live for several months”, enough to spread this extremely virulent form of TB to more people and create more havoc on the health system.