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TB, or not TB?

One of the world’s greatest killers is back on the loose. U.S. News reports on the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis in South Africa:

A new paper published earlier this week in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal warns that the first cases of “totally drug-resistant” tuberculosis have been found in South Africa and that the disease is “virtually untreatable.”

The emergence of MDR [multi drug-resistant TB] and its even more dangerous cousin, XDR (extremely drug-resistant TB), have pushed tuberculosis cure rates in the country from a high of 73 percent in 2008 down to 53 percent in 2010.

Tuberculosis is the second most fatal infectious disease after HIV. And though drug-resistant TB is most prevalent in South Africa (likely due to 12 percent of its population being immuno-compromised by HIV), cases have also been found in India, Iran, and Italy.

But even U.S. citizens with access to advanced health care cannot rest easy. In the early ’90s, a New York City hospital was hit by a TBoutbreak. Twenty-nine of the 32 people who contracted it died. With today’s cheap airfares and the increased frequency of global travel, it wouldn’t take much for a similar outbreak to occur.

Given the increased risk of global pandemics, it’s no longer possible to view diseases in faraway countries as someone else’s problem. Assisting countries in Africa in their efforts to build up modern health care systems will be a key component of public health policy going forward.

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