First-line TB drugs may not always work. Photo credit: Kieran Oudshoorn/ Operation ASHA.
Getting the right medicines to sick people in developing countries is often a challenge. The hurdle is even higher when countries – or patients – lack funds to pay for these medicines. But what happens when the medicines get to the right people – but do not work?
Drug resistance is a common problem with many medicines, even standard antibiotics. For a patient, this often means that when one medicine proves ineffective, another regime must be tested. With tuberculosis (TB), a highly infectious air-borne disease that is deadly if not treated, drug resistance has become a serious problem. If normal TB drugs do not work, a patient remains infectious – and continues to spread the disease. In 2011, there were half a million drug-resistant TB cases in 84 countries around the world.
Until recently, it took months to detect whether a person had drug-resistant TB (or even worse: multi-drug resistant TB or extensively drug-resistant TB). For normal TB, a lab technician has to detect the bacteria from a sputum sample using a microscope. TB bacteria are difficult to find in sputum of children or HIV-positive people. For drug-resistant TB, bacteria had to be grown for months in laboratory cultures – if such equipment was available. In the meanwhile, patients continued to infect their children, partners and other people.
Today, the World Health Organization and UNITAID, an innovative financing mechanism for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in low-income countries, announced the largest ever roll-out of GeneXpert, a rapid TB test machine.
The aim is to use these 220 machines to halt the spread of drug-resistant TB and save 62,000 lives by shortening the time to diagnose TB from weeks or months to only two hours.
Thanks to quick, simple diagnosis, patients can immediately be put on the correct treatment regime, halting to spread further infections. It’s a big step in the right direction for tuberculosis and this day should be celebrated.
But our work is not over. Let’s fight to end TB for good.