TUBERCULOSIS: Public Health Officials Warn of Pandemic
"We are well into the midst of a global TB public health crisis and there is not time to lose," U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher warned about two weeks ago, as he and other leading public health officials have called for a global response to halt the spread of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), the Washington Times reports. Although the TB rate reached an all-time low last year with 6.8 cases per 100,000 people, Satcher said that new strains of the disease, resistant to antibiotics used to treat it, are beginning to enter the country. However, public health officials note that a full-scale, international assault on TB will be difficult as it will be costly and will require a concerted effort among many countries, which has been difficult to achieve in the past. Further complicating the battle is the bacterium itself, which can quickly mutate and render antibiotics useless. Another significant hurdle will be the reallocation of funds needed to control the disease. A recent Harvard Medical School study noted that the "irony of TB control is that resources are concentrated in precisely those settings in which they are least needed." Most of the resources -- physicians, laboratories, drug manufacturers -- are concentrated in predominately developed regions where people are generally healthy and TB is no longer viewed as a threat. Also, funds for TB prevention and control have been cut in response to the low infection rate.
An 'Interim Response'
Some predict that TB will never be eradicated as it flourishes in prisons and homeless shelters and affects people in impoverished countries. The air-borne contagion can be passed via a cough or a sneeze. However, Satcher and other leading public health officials have called for a renewed effort to develop vaccines and new medications and have prescribed an "interim response" to slow the disease's progression before it reaches epidemic proportions. They urge the United States and other developed countries to provide foreign aid to countries most affected by both regular TB and MDR-TB. "Deterring the MDR-TB threat has to be seen as a national defense program," National Tuberculosis Center Executive Director Dr. Lee Reichman said. Although the international effort will have a hefty price-tag, health officials believe that the benefits far exceed the costs. The Harvard study concluded, "To delay such a response will only lead, ultimately, to increasing outlays and greater loss of life" (Gribbin, 12/13).