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March 24, 2014

TB Treatment Sees Progress, Setbacks

by Carol Pearson

There's good news and bad news to report for World TB Day, March 24.

The good news: there are new drugs, new tests and a promising vaccine being developed.

The sobering news: drug resistance is common and health officials are calling a multi-drug resistant variety of TB "a global threat."

The World Health Organization says 8.6 million people became ill with tuberculosis in 2012, the most recent year with available statistics. Most of those infected with TB live in developing countries. And people with HIV have an especially high risk of developing TB. 

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, one-third of the world's population has latent tuberculosis. They have no symptoms, but could become sick at some point because they are infected with the TB bacteria.

TB is spread through the air, when an infected person coughs. The disease is curable, with treatment.  Most of the 1.3 million people who died from tuberculosis in 2012 were not treated.

In Chicago, Dr. Dean Schraufnagel treats about 200 TB patients a year. "Treatment is really prevention," he said, "because once you treat a single case, then that person is no longer able to spread it to anyone else."

The problem is the billions who don't know they have TB, are not in treatment or are being treated but stop taking their medicine. Despite this issue, both doctors are optimistic.  Dr. Fauci observed, "Over the last 10 or so years, the number of cases and the number of deaths from tuberculosis have come down, mostly through public health measures." The World Health Organization reports the death rate has dropped to nearly half of what it was 20 years ago.

Dr. Schraufnagel, a past vice president of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, says the world cannot let up. "We can't say, 'OK, we've made some progress; we don't need to do more."

That's because it's clear that if TB is not controlled early, and drug resistant strains spread, the world will face a much deadlier threat.