There is a young teenage woman in India gasping for air today — she is dying, slowly and painfully. For five years she has battled against multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), which means that the bacteria that cause her tuberculosis (TB) are resistant to the antimicrobial drugs used to cure the disease. Every day, the bacteria are consuming or eating away her lungs, and life.
She has been debilitated by the MDR-TB, and has suffered from the permanently disabling effects of highly toxic second-line antibiotics used in the hope of a cure, only to find that these drugs had no effect on the resistant bacteria. These chemo-pharma drugs are over fifty years old, and most have been ‘retired’ due to dangerous toxicity. Now, the first new drug specifically for MDR-TB, bedaquiline, has been developed, but this poor teenager is being denied access to it by the Government of India due to “politics and protocol”. Without this new antibiotic, she will soon join the 250,000 other Indians that needlessly die each year from TB, which is classified as a ‘curable’ disease. For decades, far more people die from TB in India than any other country, and it now leads the world in MDR-TB cases and deaths although all figures for drug resistance are estimates or guesswork, often proved to be wrong later.
Around the world, an estimated 580,000 people get MDR-TB each year, but only 20 per cent are treated. For over half of these 120,000 patients, the treatment is not effective and they will die. As antibiotic resistant strains of the disease grow and spread, new medical classifications are being announced – there is now extensively drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) which is even more resistant, and more lethal than MDR-TB. The bottom line is that whatever the terminology, untreated or poorly treated drug resistant TB kills some half a million people every year.