Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious bacterial disease that most commonly affects the lungs. It transfers from person to person by cough-induced airborne droplets. For healthy people, the infection is typically fought off by the body’s immune system and symptoms are rare. However, when symptoms are active, a person with TB experiences coughing, sometimes with mucous or blood, chest pains, weakness, weight loss and fevers.
Thankfully, TB is a treatable disease if the patient has access to the requisite six-month course of antibiotics. Patients who cannot complete the full treatment cycle have not fully eliminated the bacteria from their body. Often times, patients in poorer nations simply do not have access to extensive treatment, or cannot afford it, and can become sick again with a more virulent, resistant form of the disease that is less responsive to treatments – also known as drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB). Currently, about one third of the world’s population is infected with a latent form of TB. Each year, nearly two million die as a result of one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
In the last few years, new drugs have been developed to aid in the fight against the strains of DR-TB. Between 2012 and 2014, bedaquiline and delamanid were the first drugs developed to treat TB in over 50 years. They represent a lifeline for the people who are suffering from the most resistant forms of TB. However, people around the world are not receiving access to the drugs. The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is aiming to change that, starting in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the global TB community is meeting for the 48th Union World Conference on Lung Health later this year. Some physicians are hopeful that the new medicine can solve the tuberculosis crisis in Mexico.
Prior to 2010, Mexico had been experiencing a consistent decline in the presence of the disease. Between 1990 and 2010, the studies with the National Institutes of Health estimate that incidence were decreasing annually by about two percent. However, thousands are still diagnosed in Mexico every year. The spread of the disease does not end at its borders, either. The U.S. reports that over 20 percent of its foreign-born TB cases are Mexican. Obviously, the presence of TB continues to be a public concern for Mexico and its neighboring countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, nearly 30 percent of patients with DR-TB could benefit from the introduction of the new drugs into the medical regimen. Yet, as of July 2017, less than 11,000 people are taking the new medications. According to Doctors Without Borders, the TB treatment community is largely concerned with the low uptake of the new drugs that have a high potential to aid those with the lowest chances of success under the current standard. Prior to the new drug developments, DR-TB patients are prescribed to take over 15,000 pills over the course of two years. Dr. Isaac Chikwanha, HIV and TB Medical Advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign says, “Today, it’s unacceptable to continue treating [patients] with the same old regimen of medicines and not providing better treatment, knowing very well that we could be giving people a much better chance to stay alive by using these newer drugs.”
Fortunately, despite the conservative physicians resistance, the new drugs are being advanced and have since been distributed in over 14 countries. Advocates and campaigns continue to place the spotlight on better TB treatment options being available, but underutilized. Poor nations in particular need to focus on acquiring these new drugs, as the sick and malnourished are often even more susceptible to TB than others.
While the Center for Disease Control has identified a TB epidemic throughout the country, new medicine can help solve the TB crisis in Mexico with the implementation of new treatment regimes. Local communities, in conjunction with research and medical services, must cooperate to continue advancing medical treatments. Only then can the global community finally fight back against TB.
– Taylor Elkins