News / Africa

In Cameroon, TB Vaccine Breakthrough Elusive

Tuberculosis vaccine breakthrough eludes researchers in Cameroon due to 'clever' nature of TB-causing bacteria

Multimedia

Audio

Deaths from tuberculosis are increasing in the developing world and especially in Africa.  It’s the world’s second deadliest infectious disease after HIV/AIDS.  In 2008, nearly two million people died of TB and researchers warn that mortality rates will surge further if new drugs and vaccines are not developed.

Linda is a 35-year-old Cameroonian mother of two.  She’s one of 35.000 people in the country diagnosed every year with tuberculosis, which kills some 7,000.  Her problem is compounded by the fact that she’s also infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

X-ray of patient with tuberculosis
X-ray of patient with tuberculosis

“It is very difficult,” she said. “Several times, I consider suicide but then I think about my children and want to be there for them.  I have had TB for several years and despite all the drugs, I am still ill.  The doctor says my problem is severe because I also have HIV.  I have to take countless numbers of medicines every day and sometimes I just can’t stand it.”

Like others in her condition, Linda longs for the day when an effective remedy will be found.

In early October, more than 200 researchers met for an international symposium in the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde.  They discussed the disease, but had no new drugs or vaccines to report.  They could only talk about new ways to improve existing treatments.

The meeting was hosted by the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases, a non-profit research organization trying to find new medicines for the treatment of neglected, infectious diseases like TB, malaria and Dengue fever.

One of the conference participants, Prof. Barry Clifton of the US National Institutes of Health, says the absence of new drugs is steadily increasing the number of deaths from TB:

“I don’t feel very optimistic about a breakthrough any time in the foreseeable future unless people put more effort and emphasis and research into tackling TB,” he said.  “At our current level, I think we’ll keep the pace to the point where we hopefully don’t have many people who don’t have any options.  But we’re not going to win the race.”

Paul Herrling in a discussion with symposium attendee
Paul Herrling in a discussion with symposium attendee

The only available vaccine for TB, known as Bacille-Calmette-Guerin (BCG) was developed almost 90 years ago.  It’s a live vaccine similar to the TB bacterium and has been improved over the years to provide immunity with the first dose.

But while it reduces risks of severe forms of TB in early childhood, it is not very effective in adults, who can be infected even if they were vaccinated in their youth. And BCG is not safe for children with HIV because it can spur the onset of the disease in those with weakened immune systems.  Across Africa, most children are given the vaccine without knowledge of their HIV status.

The link Between HIV and TB

Prof. Paul Herrling is head of the Novartis Institutes for Developing World Medical Research. He says there are a number of reasons for the current dilemma:

“The first one is that the last medicines that we had for TB are about 40 years old, and one thing that people did not know at that time is that this is a very clever bacterium and when they’re treated with the same medicines for a long time, they learn to escape it.  That’s what we call resistance,” he said.

Scientists say TB strains can vary from multi-drug resistant (MDR-TB) to extensively drug resistant (XDR-TB).

The most prominent way the TB virus gains resistance is in patients’ failing to complete their treatments.

Researchers say fighting tuberculosis is made more difficult by the increasing number of people, especially in Africa, like Linda, who are also infected with HIV.  Prof. Christopher Kuaban of the University of Yaounde in Cameroon says HIV/AIDS patients are up to 20 times more likely to develop TB than people without HIV:

“HIV is an infection that destroys your immune system. TB is contained by this immune system – so if your immune system breaks down when you’re infected by TB, the TB germ has nothing to fear because there’s nobody to destroy it. That’s why in any country where HIV is common, TB becomes very common,” he said.

Ongoing research inconclusive

Current treatment is cumbersome: it takes six to nine months and patients must take several tablets several times a day.  Research in several parts of the world is focusing on developing treatment that’s easier for the patient, as well as vaccines that may replace BCG.

Clinical trials are about to begin on one vaccine candidate - called AERAS-422.  They will be conducted in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and India by the non-profit research organization Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation.  It recently obtained a $785,000 three-year-grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Officials say the results may be available by the year 2020.

University of Yaounde (Cameroon) TB
University of Yaounde (Cameroon) TB

Funding is a problem say researchers like Barry Clifton:

“A normal pharmaceutical company will take a hundred people working for several years to get a candidate to put into clinical trials," he said. "With TB, we don’t have those kinds of resources because it’s a developing world disease, and there’s no financial incentive.  So, we try to do the best we can with the small resources we have.  It’s market-driven, so the big pharmaceutical companies are responsible for making money [for their shareholders].”

Meantime, the epidemic continues to grow, especially in Africa, where cities are increasingly crowded, where poor people find little to eat to bolster their immune systems, and where healthcare services are not adequate.

As a result, more and more people like Linda and her children are victims of stigma and discrimination. They are increasingly turning their backs on hospitals and heading for traditional healers and proliferating prayer churches for help.

TB’s intimidating complexities

TB is caused by a bacterium known as the Mycobacterium tuberculosis.  It’s spread from person to person through tiny airborne droplets of infected sputum.  It can affect almost any tissue or organ in the body, with the most common site being the lungs.  Basically, it cripples the human immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to deadly bacterial infection.

The WHO says of the nine million people diagnosed with TB worldwide last year, a third live in Africa.  It’s currently the leading cause of death among people with HIV/AIDS on the continent.

You May Like

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs