The humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, says new drugs to combat extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis are urgently needed. The group is calling for the World Health Organization to take the lead in accelerating the development of new drugs to treat this potentially fatal disease. 

In the 1980s, many experts thought tuberculosis could be eradicated in a matter of decades. But, TB, which had been on the decline, has come roaring back in a more dangerous form than in the past.

Health experts are worried about the emergence of what they call extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB for short. They say existing drugs are ineffective against it.

The head of Doctors Without Borders, Rowan Gillies, says extremely drug-resistant TB poses a particularly grave threat in places with high HIV prevalence, because, with their weakened immune systems, HIV patients are more susceptible to TB. Public health officials say, of the 40 million people living with HIV, about one-third are infected with tuberculosis.

The World Health Organization reports, every year there are nine million new cases of TB. About two million people die. Ninety-nine percent of these cases are in the developing world.

Dr. Gillies says there has been little incentive for research and development of TB drugs.

"There has been very little research and development into tuberculosis in the last 40 or 50 years," he said. "The pipeline was almost completely closed down over the last 30 or 40 years, mainly because people with tuberculosis do not live in countries that is a reasonable market for pharmaceutical research."

Dr. Gillies says leadership from the World Health Organization to tackle this health crisis is urgently needed.

"We have been going on about this for a long time about requiring leadership from the WHO in the major health crises of today. And, especially with tuberculosis, they cannot delegate this responsibility," added Dr. Gillies. "It must take on this responsibility, especially when it comes to research and development into new tools and new medications. This is what we desperately need."

Earlier this month, health officials from the WHO and Southern Africa met to discuss ways to deal with the growing cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The director of Doctors Without Borders' Essential Medicines program, Tido von  Schoen-Angerer, says several drugs aimed at treating extremely drug-resistant TB are under development. But, they are not likely to become available for a very long time, which he says is very worrying.

"We are calling here for today to fast-track the clinical development of those compounds in the pipeline that are already in clinical trials," said Schoen-Angerer. "We are calling on the regulatory agencies, like the [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration, or the European regulatory agencies, to guide the process, how a fast track clinical development can be done to move the most promising compounds to the patients as quickly as possible."

Dr. Schoen-Angerer says these new drugs should be given to TB patients as soon as they are proven safe, as happened with the HIV epidemic.

He notes the first HIV drugs were fast-tracked and made available for compassionate use before they had final approval. He says the TB emergency warrants a similar process.