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New South African Research Center to Tackle HIV/TB

It's estimated one-third of the people living with HIV, the AIDS virus, are also infected with tuberculosis. Health officials say this dual epidemic is one of the most significant challenges facing modern medicine. Now, South Africa is home to a new research facility looking for new ways of treating the diseases.

The KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV is a partnership between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. It's located in the epicenter of South Africa's HIV/AIDS epidemic and the site of some of the first cases of multi-drug and extremely drug resistant TB.

Dr. Bruce Walker, a specialist in infectious diseases, says, "We're talking about a really serious problem in terms of the convergence of these two epidemics."

Dr. Walker is director of the Ragon Institute, which is supported by Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

"One of the most exciting parts of this whole project is the ability to conduct research at the heart of these two epidemics. And have it really be focused on the local problems that need to be solved," he says.

Dr. Thumbi Ndung'u, an associate professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says HIV/AIDS makes TB infection much easier. "People don't normally die of HIV/AIDS as such. People usually die of opportunistic infections that come about as a result of the virus (HIV) weakening the immune system. And among the common of the opportunistic infections that affect people with HIV is tuberculosis," he says.

He says that the new institute is a great opportunity for African researchers. "If you look at the HIV/AIDS-TB problems as they exist today, they have an African face. If you look at the people who are infected with HIV, with TB, these people tend to be predominantly Africans. But you don't see Africans at the forefront of inventive research on these problems. You don't see the Africans at the forefront of trying to confront these problems in a comprehensive and sustainable way. I think that there is a tremendous opportunity here," he says.

One of the new institute's goals is to train a new generation of African scientists.

Dr. Ndung'u says the extent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal Province is reflected among pregnant women who go to health clinics.

"In some provinces like KwaZulu-Natal, where I'm working, the infection rates actually approach 40 percent among women attending ante-natal clinics. It's a very, very severe problem. And of course that's compounded now by the problem of tuberculosis," he says.

Dr. Walker says the institute will take a different approach to tackling these diseases.

He says, "Traditionally, in Africa, TB has been treated by one group of doctors and HIV by a completely separate group of doctors. What we need is integration both at the clinical level and at the research level, so that we have under the same roof people that are trying to deal with this co-epidemic."

But he says although the research focuses on HIV and TB, the findings may help in other areas as well. "These sorts of studies have wide ranging implications for the way the immune system deals with all sorts of things, like cancers. So, the point of this is to try and take what is a very careful, basic look at the underpinnings of the immune system, but then extend it all the way out to figuring out how best to treat people that are coming into the clinic," her says.

It's estimated more than 33 million people are now living with HIV/AIDS. More than 10 million of them are also believed to be infected with tuberculosis. TB is the cause of death for many of them. The CDC, US Centers for Disease Control, says since 1990, TB infection rates have increased four-fold in countries with high rates of HIV.

World TB Day is March 24th.