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‘Totally drug-resistant’ tuberculosis found in South Africa

A new study published this week in the US Centers for Disease Control’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal reveals that the first cases of 'totally drug-resistant' tuberculosis have been found in South Africa.

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A medical worker is pictured at a mobile testing facility for tuberculosis at Driefontein Gold Mine in Carletonville, South Africa, on Mar. 24, 2012. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

A new study published this week in the US Centers for Disease Control’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal reveals that the first cases of "totally drug-resistant" tuberculosis have been found in South Africa, US News & World Report reported.

"How long it's been out there is anyone's guess,” one of the authors of the study, Paul van Helden, director of South Africa's Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research, told US News. “We found nine cases in one small area; obviously it's something that's been out there for a while.”

About a quarter of TB cases in Africa occur in South Africa, with more than 389,000 South Africans getting the disease annually, US News reported. Tuberculosis cure rates have dropped from 73 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2010 as a growing number of cases are emerging MDR, or multi drug-resistant TB, and XDR, extremely drug-resistant TB.

The severity of the drug-resistant TB epidemic in South Africa “emphasizes the urgent need for curbing the rising incidence of drug resistance in the country,” the researchers wrote. “This result can only be achieved by implementing appropriate intervention strategies based on knowledge of the mechanisms fueling this epidemic.”

Incomplete treatment for TB has helped bacteria grow resistant to antibiotics, Karin Weyer, coordinator of the World Health Organization's Stop TB Department, told US News. "The most important aspect of this is that we get the patient cured the first time around," she said. "Every time a patient has to get treated again, you run the risk of amplifying resistance."

South Africa may need more resources to be able to control outbreaks of drug-resistant TB like New York City, which limited an outbreak of MDR in the early 1990s to just 29 deaths, according to US News.

"The fact that New York City managed the outbreak suggests we can contain it, but the cost was phenomenal," van Helden told US News. "We don't have the same resources as the US. South Africa is going to go through a lot of strain trying to combat this problem."

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