Five developing nations with high rates of infectious diseases — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — have announced they will work collaboratively to fight back against drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB), an epidemic that contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths around the globe each year.
Drug-resistant TB has a fatality rate of about 50 percent. The new international effort to combat it comes on the heels of increasing reports that the epidemic is worsening, including Monday’s news that a highly-anticipated TB vaccine trial — a study of the first new tuberculosis vaccine in 90 years — failed to achieve its desired results. The World Health Organization warns that the rise of TB strains resistant to antibiotic treatment represents a serious global health threat, particularly in developing nations:
Nearly 60% of the estimated 310,000 cases of multidrug-resistant TB in 2011 occurred in China, India, and Russia, according to the WHO, which has said that those countries must intensify their efforts in order for the global epidemic to be overcome. Multidrug-resistant TB is a form of the disease that doesn’t respond to the two most powerful anti-TB medicines.
The communiqué by the five nations comes after a year of dire reports about the worsening of drug-resistant TB globally despite progress in reducing the incidence of regular TB. Early last year, an Indian physician reported seeing patients whose TB had become so resistant that it didn’t respond to virtually any of the 12 top medicines used against the disease. In June, a research team in China reported its first national survey of drug resistance, finding that 10% of TB patients had multidrug-resistant strains.
With their flourishing economies and emerging middle classes, the five countries — often collectively referred to as the BRICS nations — are under growing pressure to use more of their own funds to address their health issues, rather than accept donations from wealthy developed nations such as the U.S. However, treating drug-resistant forms of the disease is much more costly and complicated than treating regular TB. For years, public-health experts feared that treating resistant strains would distract national health programs from fighting regular TB, which is far more prevalent.
And tuberculosis may just be the tip of the iceberg, as medical experts warn that the rapid rise of drug-resistant bacteria will lead to an impending “antibiotic apocalypse.” In addition to TB, the treatments for common diseases like gonorrhea, E. coli, and penicillin are also losing their effectiveness — and new drugs aren’t being developed quickly enough to replace them.
Drug-resistant diseases aren’t just an issue in developing nations, either. Since testing and marketing new drugs isn’t as profitable for the pharmaceutical industry, the development of new types of antibiotics in this country has also lagged behind. The Food and Drug Administration has attempted to relax its authorization process for new antibiotics in order to spur the development of new drugs, but antibiotic development in the U.S. has continued to stall.