Tuberculosis: The New Face of an Old Disease

Sven Torfinn


AMSTERDAM/NEW YORKImmediate action is needed from governments, pharmaceutical companies, and researchers to find new treatments for drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB), and to prevent people from dying from one of the world’s most urgent global health threats, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today in a report released in advance of World TB Day.

The MSF report draws on first-hand experience working on the frontline of the DR-TB crisis, and describes the critical need to diagnose and treat more people now, and to find new, much shorter, more tolerable, and more effective treatment combinations.  Roughly eight million people worldwide fall ill with tuberculosis and 1.3 million people die from the infectious airborne disease every year.

Read Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis: The New Face of an Old Disease

“The DR-TB crisis is everybody’s problem and demands an immediate international response,” said Dr Sidney Wong, MSF medical director. “Each year we are diagnosing more patients with DR-TB, but the current treatments aren’t good enough to make a dent in the epidemic. It doesn’t matter where you live; until new, short, and more effective treatment combinations are found, the odds of surviving this disease today are dismal.”

TB is curable, but an inadequate global response has allowed drug-resistant TB to take hold. Around half a million new cases of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) occur every year, with cases reported in virtually all countries worldwide. Even harder-to-treat, extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) is documented in nearly 100 countries. While these deadlier drug-resistant strains are spreading from person to person, no effective treatment exists.

Video: A Breath of Hope for MDR-TB Patients

While the growing use of a new rapid diagnostic test for MDR-TB is helping to identify more and more patients, standard TB drugs won’t cure patients, and doctors must turn to long, complex, and expensive drugs that, at best, only cure half the patients on treatment. People face a two-year ordeal involving swallowing more than 10,000 pills and enduring eight months of daily injections. The treatments make many people seriously ill, with side effects ranging from nausea and body pain to permanent hearing loss and psychosis. The drugs alone cost health providers around US$4,000 per person per year, not including costs for long periods of care and the management of side effects.

Although two new TB drugs were recently developed—the first in 40 years—doctors and patients are years away from the treatment revolution they need. To be effective, TB drugs have to be used in combination, and clinical trials combining the new drugs are not yet underway

The inadequate and costly treatment is severely undermining the global response. With only one in five people in need receiving DR-TB treatment today, the fatal, airborne disease is left to spread indiscriminately.

The severity of the crisis has led DR-TB patients and medical staff worldwide to come together to call for urgent improvements in "Test Me, Treat Me: A DR-TB Manifesto."

Video: New Drugs for Drug-Resistant TB Are a Lifeline

“Let us accept the fact we are faced with a TB epidemic,” said a mother of two from Swaziland, whose daughter died of DR-TB and whose son is now infected with the disease. “We need to get together and fight for our survival so that there can be a future for the next generation, because if we give up the fight now, the children are finished.” 

MSF doctor making rounds together with medical staff of the ministry of health in the TB wards of Makanyane clinic. Swaziland, MSF clinic in Makanyane. October 2013.
Sven Torfinn