Each year millions of people die unnecessarily of tuberculosis (TB). The lack of education and health care access, poverty and armed conflicts are some of the reasons. But perhaps the most serious is the lack of knowledge. On World TB Day, it is important to shine a spotlight on this devastating disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers that more than 3 million people have TB and don’t know it. Experts estimate that there are one million children suffering from the disease, double what the WHO calculates and three times more than what is diagnosed a year.
In Latin America, one out of every five people is not diagnosed, according to the Pan American Organization for health (PAHO).
Tuberculosis is transmitted through the air. It is highly contagious and it can spread from one person to another by breathing or swallowing the bacteria from an infected individual.
Conditions due to overcrowding, such as slums in urban areas, are the perfect breeding ground for the disease to spread quickly.
Infections can usually be treated with a course of anti-tuberculosis antibiotics, called first-line drugs. But when not taken properly the person can develop resistant or multi-drug resistant TB, MDR-TB.
There are drugs to treat this second stage of infection – second-line drugs – but are they are more scarce, expensive and have more side effects. If the infection is left untreated, it becomes even stronger and develops so-called extremely resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB.
According to the Organization Doctors Without Borders, the treatment for MDR-TB costs around $10,000, in contrast to the $50 that would normally cost medicines to heal someone who is not resistant.
While several drugs exists to treat TB, when two of the drugs that are essential – rifampin and isionacida – cannot kill the TB bacteria, then the patient becomes resistant.
One of the reasons why someone can be resistant to medicines is to not complete the treatment. The other is to buy or consume antibiotics indiscriminately and without a prescription.
Another reason why possibly the numbers of TB cases remain so high is due to the calculations.
Specialists from Harvard University, in Boston, estimated that close to one million children suffer from tuberculosis annually, twice the number that was previously thought and three times the amount of what is diagnosed every year.
Experts also estimate 32,000 children suffer from MDR-TB, according to the study published this week in The Lancet.
For experts, these findings underline the need to expand the investment for a global response against tuberculosis and MDR-TB in children.
Improved methods for collecting data on childhood TB must be developed. A good starting point would be to improve diagnostic methods for children and a collection of more systematic information on how many children are suffering from the disease.
Tuberculosis is very intelligent, because it kills slowly. And while doing so, a patient is unknowingly spreading it. While it is very straightforward how to treat a patient with TB, someone who develops the resistant form will face a very difficult treatment process, and in some cases it may be impossible.
Visit the WHO website to learn more: http://www.who.int/topics/tuberculosis/en/
Visit Doctors Without Borders to learn more: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/our-work/medical-issues/tuberculosis
To learn more about World TB Day visit: http://www.who.int/campaigns/tb-day/2014/en/