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George Soros Pledges $3 Million to Fight Lethal TB in Africa

International financier George Soros is giving $3 million to help public health experts fight a lethal, drug-resistant form of tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa. VOA's David McAlary in Washington reports that the money will be used to learn how to manage TB in communities hit hard by the AIDS virus.

Soros' financial pledge will fund a coalition of non-governmental health groups for work in Lesotho on how to prevent and treat an extremely drug-resistant form of tuberculosis that is fueled by the HIV epidemic.

This so-called XDR TB is resistant to most tuberculosis drugs. It is an evolution of previous forms that resist fewer drugs and are collectively known as multi-drug resistant TB.

XDR TB was first reported in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, neighboring Lesotho, and the death rate for people infected by both diseases there is as high as 85 percent. XDR TB is now found in 28 countries, including the United States and all other industrial nations.

Soros says his $3 million donation is needed to make progress against it in the absence of global attention to the problem.

"We were always afraid that if multi-drug resistant tuberculosis meets HIV/AIDS, that it could be really devastating," he said. "This is now happening in southern Africa. It is an issue that is not getting the attention that it deserves because it mainly affects poor countries."

The health coalition includes Soros' Open Society Institute, the World Health Organization, Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and Partners in Health, a non-governmental group working to fight disease in poor countries.

They say XDR TB threatens to reverse progress against HIV and call on wealthy governments to do more to halt the dual epidemics. The World Health Organization estimates that $650 million is needed to fight XDR TB annually in addition to funding already pledged for less lethal strains.

A co-founder of Partners in Health, former World Health Organization AIDS Department director Jim Yong Kim, says the financial need is urgent.

"Without Mr. Soros' visionary gift and without some sort increased commitment from the U.S. government and others, we're going to be in a situation where the problem is going to get worse and worse and worse," he said. "I think in a few years, if we don't respond, we'll all be sorry."

The program the health coalition plans to carry out with George Soros' money in Lesotho would develop guidelines to treat highly drug resistant tuberculosis in HIV patients, whose ability to stave off illness is weakened by the virus. Once proven, these measures could then be exported to other nations facing both diseases.

Kim's co-founding colleague at Partners in Health, Brigham and Women's Hospital physician Paul Farmer, says work he helped carry out in Russian prisons over the past decade shows that death rates for highly drug resistant TB can be brought down.

"XDR TB does not need to be a death sentence," he said. "If we can combine good infection control, good prevention strategies, and good therapy, we are confident based on our past experience that we can curb this epidemic."