The world could be on the brink of an outbreak of a deadly and ‘virtually untreatable’ strain of drug resistant tuberculosis unless immediate action is taken, doctors have warned.
The first cases of ‘totally drug-resistant’ tuberculosis have been found in South Africa, according to a new paper published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.
Clinics across the country ravaged by the bacterial lung infection, have reported an explosion in the number of patients struck down with a virulent strain.
Fears are mounting that conventional treatments would be next to useless in the face of the new disease, which killed 1.4 million people globally in 2011, according to the World Health Organisation.
The disease is particularly prevalent in South Africa, where high rates of HIV means the immune systems of many more people are susceptible to infections.
But compounding the problem is the higher cases in which the illness is only partially treated.
This has led to the disease evolving into a strain which is not vulnerable to antibiotics.
Dr Uvistra Naidoo, who treats TB sufferers in a South African clinic, has horrific first-hand experience of the new disease after contracting a strain himself.
He underwent three years of agonising treatment after contracting the new multi drug-resistant disease – only surviving after undergoing a cocktail of powerful drugs which caused life-threatening side effects.
Mr Naidoo contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a complication from the treatment that causes layers of skin to separate from each other which caused him regularly to bleed from his eyes.
He told U.S.News: ‘The TB doesn’t feel like it’s killing you, but the drugs do,’ adding: ‘My case was three years long. I don’t think the average patient has that kind of patience.’
As far back as March 2010, the World Health Organisation warned that in some areas of the world, one in four people with tuberculosis were being struck down with the ‘disease that can no longer be treated with standard drugs regimens’.
After widespread vaccination in much of the developed world, the disease has been largely isolated in 22 so-called ‘high burden’ countries – including South Africa.
These poorer regions account for around 80 per cent of global cases of TB.
But it is feared not enough is being done to tackle the growing problem, which is not limited to South Africa.
A New York hospital was hit by a multi drug-resistant TB outbreak in the early ’90s.
Of the 32 patients who caught the infection, 29 died.
Serious outbreaks have also been reported in Peru, Russia, and India during the last ten years,
Despite drug companies developing a new generation of treatments, experts have warned more action needs to be taken and new drugs brought out.
Karin Weyer, coordinator of the World Health Organisation’s Stop TB department on drug resistance told U.S.News: ‘It’s encouraging we have a few drugs in the pipeline, but we need several new ones, with new mechanisms of action, to protect against new resistances.’