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Drug Company Helps Improve TB Treatment in Developing Countries - 2003-06-05

A major drug company is donating its technology with the goal of improving the treatment of tuberculosis in poor countries. The World Health Organization says the donation will boost global efforts to fight resistant forms of the disease.

The World Health Organization says drug resistant tuberculosis represents one of the most severe threats to public health today. This type of tuberculosis often develops in patients who do not complete the proper treatment for TB.

Marcos Espinal is Project Manager for WHO's multi-drug TB resistance program. He says Eli Lilly and Company manufactures two of the most powerful drugs used to treat this disease. The problem is the drugs are very expensive and not affordable in developing countries.

But the Director of Regional Manufacturing for Eli Lilly and Company, Michael Spink, says his company will provide firms in China, India and South Africa with the technology to make both antibiotics. He says as a result, these companies will be able to sell the drugs at very low prices.

"What we view as being a key part of our program is the sharing of our technology," he explained. "We want to share how to manufacture drugs to western GMP standards with emerging manufacturers in China, India and South Africa, allowing them to put quality products at a lower price in their market place. And, we feel that is a benefit. We are creating manufacturing centers of excellence."

Dr. Espinal says WHO now will be able to buy these drugs at a fraction of their cost and distribute them free of charge to TB patients in poor countries. He said this will have a big impact in tackling multi-drug resistant TB.

"If this form of TB is not treated, a patient will create more drug resistance, a patient will transmit drug resistance to others," said Dr. Espinal. "Drug resistance will continue growing and treatment of this form of disease is heavily more expensive...It will not be possible to cure. They will die and they will continue spreading the disease."

The World Health Organization estimates nine million people a year are infected with tuberculosis. Of these, about 400,000 are hit with multi-drug resistant TB, most of them in poor countries. WHO says each patient infects around 20 other people.

It takes between 18 and 24 months to complete treatment for multi-drug resistant TB.

The current cost for treatment is around 400 dollars. This is a hundred times more expensive and three times as long as treating regular tuberculosis. The World Health Organization says the new initiative will drastically reduce the cost of treatment.

WHO is running treatment programs for 4,000 people in Russia, the Philippines, India, Peru and seven other countries. It hopes to expand these programs to reach 20,000 people.