Global health officials are warning that the proliferation of antibiotic-resistance tuberculosis is a looming public health disaster that will eventually come to a head. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) estimations, 500,000 people are infected with a TB strain that’s resistant to the two drugs typically used to treat it — but many of those people go undiagnosed, and end up spreading the deadly strains even further.
Tuberculosis kills about a million people around the world, but drug-resistant strains are even more deadly. Dr. Mario Raviglione, the director of the WHO’s Global Tuberculosis program, told BBC News that the growing public health threat represents a “ticking time bomb,” since about 80 percent of the people who have drug-resistant TB are not currently being treated.
It’s an issue that’s particularly problematic in developing countries. More than half of the global cases of drug-resistant TB are in India, China, and Russia. Tuberculosis is a highly contagious airborne disease that can be spread by coming into close contact with someone who’s infected, so people living in close quarters are particularly susceptible to outbreaks.
“What could happen is progressively multi-drug resistant TB takes over from normal tuberculosis,” Raviglione explained. “If this happens, not only would millions of patients potentially die of this form of TB, but if I look at it from an economic perspective the cost of dealing with millions of potential cases is enormous.”
Treating TB is already a costly endeavor because it requires a cocktail of several different antibiotics over a six month period. Many patients don’t complete the full six months of treatment, which is allowing drug-resistant strains of the disease to proliferate — indeed, superbugs are largely driven by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. In March, health officials explained that they urgently need over a billion dollars in funding to combat the rise of these new tuberculosis strains.
Tuberculosis isn’t the only area that’s in need of new treatments; other serious diseases like malaria and whooping cough are also becoming resistant to antibiotics. Public health experts have consistently warned that an impending “antibiotic apocalypse” could eventually make common infections totally incurable. But, since it’s less profitable for the pharmaceutical industry to invest in developing new drugs, the scientific progress in this area has been lagging behind.
“We’re just silently watching this epidemic unfold and spread before our eyes,” Dr. Ruth Mcnerny, a lecturer at the London School of Tropical Medicine and an employee at the TB Alert nonprofit, told BBC News. “TB is very clever because it kills you very slowly. And while it’s killing you very slowly you’re walking around spreading it.”