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Opinion: No better news on World TB Day

TB research has become marked by complacency and lack of funding, as the disease faded from high-income countries.

A woman sits on the floor by her relative, Venod Bhai, 40, an Indian tuberculosis patient in the District TB Centrer in Ahmedabad on July 16, 2009. According to the WHO, TB is one of the leading causes of mortality in India, killing more than 300,000 people every year. (Marine Simon/AFP/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A year and a half ago, I attended the seventh birthday party of a young boy named Fanyana, who was quarantined at the Sizwe Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa due to his extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis. Fanyana's tuberculosis is virtually untreatable, and when I returned to Johannesburg this past fall, he remained in quarantine. He was as charismatic as ever, but slower and more tired than when I had first met him, evidence of a gradual decline that will end with his death.

One hundred and twenty-eight years after Robert Koch discovered the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, the disease continues to thrive throughout the world. It kills nearly 2 million people a year and infects almost 9 million annually. One third of the world's population is estimated to be infected with the latent form of the disease.

“The global tuberculosis situation remains a huge concern,” says Dr. Mario Raviglione, head of the World Health Organization's Stop TB Department.

After a flood of antibiotics came on the market in the middle of the 20th century, research in the field of TB has been marked by a lack of funding and complacency, as the disease faded from high-income countries. The last new tuberculosis drug was introduced 40 years ago, and the disease has found a foothold in lower and middle-income countries, with China, India, and South Africa leading the world in new infections.

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“There continues to be an attitude of having to make do when it comes to TB that does a disservice to patients,” says Carole Mitnick, an assistant professor in Harvard Medical School's Social and Global Health program, who works on drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru.

Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis have made the battle against the disease that much harder. Whereas a regular TB infection can cost $20 to treat, multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB), which is resistant to those cheap first line drugs, can cost $5,000 to treat, and extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB), which is resistant to first and second line drug treatments, can be far more.

In a recent report on drug-resistant tuberculosis in the world, the WHO found that in some places, one in four people newly infected with TB is infected with an MDR-TB strain, the highest rate ever reported. The WHO reports that 440,000 people were estimated to have MDR-TB in 2009, and a third of them died. While there are no official numbers on XDR-TB, the agency puts those infections at “around 25,000” cases, nearly all of which were fatal. The most resistant form of the disease has been found in 58 countries so far, and there are reports of XDR strains that are resistant to every single TB drug.

Only 7 percent of those infected with MDR-TB are ever diagnosed, increasing the potential for transmission. Of those, Dr. Raviglione notes, only 3 percent are treated under good programs. The WHO reports that treating MDR/XDR-TB infections over the next five years in the 27 high-burden countries will require more than $16 billion in funding. Only $280 million is available for 2010.

If those funding patterns do not change, Mitnick expects the global TB situation will worsen. “The burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis in people who are HIV-positive is going to keep increasing globally. In places where it's bad, it's going to get worse. In places where it's just starting to develop, it's going to get bad.”