Cases of drug resistant Tuberculosis are rising dangerously in East Africa, medics warn.
The world only woke up to the dangers of drug-resistant TB in 2007, after US lawyer Andrew Speaker flew to Europe two days after being diagnosed with multi-drug resistant TB. It sparked an international scare by exposing how easily the lethal disease spreads, and how difficult it is to control.
“Drug resistant tuberculosis cases are spreading,” says Dr Joseph Sitienei, from Kenya’s TB Control Programme. “We have already seen a rise in Kenya and we believe the case is the same in other parts of East Africa,” he told Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.
Drug resistant TB is when normal TB transforms its make up to become unresponsive to treatment. It is caused by poor treatment, misdiagnosis, and people unknowingly taking counterfeit drugs.
Monitoring for cases of drug resistant TB across east African countries is almost non-existent, said Dr Sitienei. “Surveillance, an integral part of containing disease spread, is not well developed in the region.”
None of the five East African countries have an up-to-date facility for isolating high risk patients, which makes keeping tabs on the number of cases and monitoring patients even harder.
“It’s now that we are developing a proper isolation facility at Kenyatta National Hospital,” Dr Sitienei says. It is hoped other east African countries will follow suit.
Besides surveillance and monitoring problems, east African health ministries have to struggle with the skyrocketing cost of treatment.
Drugs used to treat normal TB work and are very cheap — about £12 for six months of treatment in developing countries, but it is the drug-resistant types that are a major problem for governments. According to the World Health Organization estimates, the drugs used to treat drug-resistant types can cost up to about £13,000 for the two years of treatment needed.
Like the common cold, TB spreads through the air. Only people who are sick with TB in their lungs are infectious. Left untreated, each person with active TB disease will infect on average between 10 and 15 people every year. The epidemic of drug-resistant TB is mostly blamed on patients failing to finish all their six-month course treatment, and a failure by medics to follow up on these people. Patients may feel better and stop taking their antibiotic course, or they run out of medicines, can’t get hold of them or just forget to take them.
Now, someone who doesn’t take their full course of TB medicine is not only endangering their own life, but also that of their whole community, because drug-resistant strains of TB spread easily.
In 2008, about 1.3 million people died from TB, according to World Health Organisation estimates.