GENEVA, Switzerland – The World Health Organization approved a new treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) on Thursday, May 12 a crucial step towards replacing an old, costly therapy that is brutal on patients and only 50% effective.
An estimated 480,000 people contract MDR-TB each year, accounting for roughly 5% of the 9.6 million TB cases recorded annually worldwide.
Unlike simple tuberculosis, MDR-TB has proved extremely difficult to treat, requiring patients to take painful injections and thousands of pills over a period of 18-24 months, often with devastating side effects, including deafness in some cases.
The old MDR-TB treatment regimen "is pretty much a tragedy," said Mario Raviglione, the head of WHO's TB program, noting the 50% success rate. (READ: WHO urges nations: Wipe out tuberculosis by 2050)
The new regimen, which WHO will now encourage all its member-states to adopt, lasts up to 9 months, easing the burden on patients and possibly curing more than 80% of cases.
But it does not include newly-discovered drugs. Instead, it is made up of a cocktail of existing medication, including one repurposed drug originally used to treat leprosy.
The treatment process is also cheaper, possibly costing as little as $400 (350 euros) per patient, compared to the $1,500-$3,000 under the old regimen, Raviglione told reporters.
"This is a critical step forward," he said.
Not enough research
Roughly 30% of MDR-TB patients infected with an especially complicated form of the disease will not be able to benefit from the new treatment regimen, because of added drug resistance.
To identify a patient's eligibility for the shorter therapy, the UN's health agency also approved the use of a new diagnostic test which identifies the precise nature of a TB infection within 48 hours. Previous testing took up to 3 months.
TB is a bacterial disease that mostly infects the lungs and kills an estimated 1.5 million people per year, mostly in low and middle income countries.
An estimated 190,000 people die from MDR-TB every year.
"TB hasn't received the attention and profile it deserves," he said, noting that two billion people – roughly a third of the world's population – have a latent form of TB in their system.
Raviglione agreed, telling reporters that MDR-TB patients were for years confined to a brutal treatment regimen in part because drug companies devote scant resources to TB research. – Rappler.com