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Drug Resistant Tuberculosis a Public Health Crisis, Says WHO

By Jeffrey Kopman
Published: October 25, 2013

Anatoly, 45, doctor at the Botkin Infectious diseases hospital, is in charge of the clinic in town treating homeless people. He sees many people coming in with tuberculosis symptoms and tries to get them admitted into hospitals for treatment. (Credit: Misha Friedman)

The global fight against tuberculosis faces two more difficult hurdles: drug resistance and undiagnosed cases. Despite progress in treating the disease, the World Health Organization reports that tuberculosis numbers could be off by as many as three million people, and the number could grow with multidrug-resistant forms of TB.

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The WHO estimates that TB treatment has saved more than 20 million lives, and the number of cases continued to decrease in 2012.

Still, insufficient resources continue to be a problem, especially with the development of drug resistance.

“The unmet demand for a full-scale and quality response to multidrug-resistant tuberculosis is a real public health crisis,” said Dr. Mario Raviglione, WHO Director of the Global TB Programme, in a press release. “It is unacceptable that increased access to diagnosis is not being matched by increased access to care. We have patients diagnosed but not enough drug supplies or trained people to treat them. The alert on antimicrobial resistance has been sounded; now is the time to act to halt drug-resistant TB.”

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The organization also revealed that approximately three million people living with TB are being “missed” by health systems. The lack of information on these people skews the WHO’s data and makes it even more difficult to control the disease from spreading.

“Far too many people are still missing out on care and are suffering as a result,” said Dr. Raviglione. “They are not diagnosed, or not treated, or information on the quality of care they receive is unknown.”

One-third of the world’s population is infected with latent tuberculosis, although most won’t ever show symptoms of the disease, according to the WHO. The infection causes fever, fatigue, coughing and chest pain.

Patients can treat tuberculosis by taking several drugs for 6 to 9 months. If not treated, the infection can be deadly, which makes fighting antibiotic-resistant forms even more important.

Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called all types of drug-resistant infections an "urgent threat" to public health. These "superbugs" kill 23,000 people each year in the United States alone, and that number is climbing, the CDC said in its report.

The CDC claimed that overuse of antibiotics and poor hygiene practices are partially to blame for the growth in antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA and C. difficile.

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