TB Spiraling Out of Control

White flag with red logo of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) against sunny blue sky

© Valérie Batselaere/MSF

Paris/New York, October 26, 2004 - On the eve of the 35th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Paris organized by the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (IUATLD), the humanitarian medical organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warns that millions of individuals in developing countries continue to die from this curable disease and that a radical change is needed in the way TB is tackled globally.

"Tuberculosis is one of our biggest frustrations as medical professionals," said Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of MSF in France. "In the countries MSF works in, TB kills people in the thousands without us being able to detect or treat them properly, or in time."

"It's time to openly admit that we'll never be able to 'control TB' by just prescribing more of the same. Massive investment in developing new diagnostic tests and drugs is needed now, so that we can effectively diagnose and treat all those with TB in the shortest possible time," said Dr Francine Matthys, TB advisor to the MSF Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.

Most TB programs in developing countries rely on sputum microscopy for detection of TB. Developed in 1882, this method only detects the bacilli in about 50% of all people with TB, and its performance is even poorer in children and HIV-positive people. This is alarming, as HIV/AIDS has transformed the face of TB.

Treatment of TB is long and relies on medicines that were invented 40-60 years ago. "In Guinea, and many other developing countries, we regularly see people who have already been treated for TB but return a year or two later with new TB-like symptoms," said Dr Ilse Ramboer, a physician from MSF's TB program in Guinea-Conakry. "These people could be re-infection cases. But they could also be on their way to developing multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB) - there is no way of telling because most resource-poor settings have no access to drug sensitivity testing." The combination of MDR-TB and HIV/AIDS is a time-bomb waiting to go off in Africa.

While MSF appreciates that new TB drugs and diagnostic tests are being developed by initiatives such as the Global TB Alliance and FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics), more efforts and revised strategies are needed to meet the challenge of TB today. All those providing TB care worldwide must also increase operational research into innovation in TB treatment and delivery, and improve the means of ensuring that all people with TB are guaranteed access to care.

MSF treats nearly 20,000 TB patients every year in more than 30 projects around the world. MSF teams operate in a variety of settings ranging from chronic conflict areas and prisons to countries with HIV/AIDS prevalence rates over 20% (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa), and in countries with an increasing number of people with MDR TB (e.g. Abkhazia, Uzbekistan and Ivory Coast). In many countries, MSF supports the national tuberculosis programs at health centers or district hospitals. Read MSF's 2003 report, Running out of breath? TB care in the 21st century.