The Human Impact

Can the world get rid of tuberculosis?

It would be easy to think that tuberculosis is under control. TB, one of the world’s top two infectious disease killers, has been declining slowly but steadily and in some parts of the world it has been almost eradicated.

But one of the oldest epidemics afflicting mankind has come back with a new face: drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB) is on the rise globally and experts warn that deadly strains are spreading at an alarming rate, threatening to unravel much of the progress made in tackling TB.

Around 450,000 people fell sick with these dangerous superbug strains of TB in 2012, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Fewer than one in four were diagnosed, putting the rest at risk of dying due to the wrong medicines or no treatment at all.

Patients with multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) fail to respond to treatment with two of the powerful anti-tuberculosis drugs. Totally-drug resistant TB, which cannot be treated with any known drugs, is also rising. The cost of treating these forms is high – £250,000 compared to £5,000 for conventional TB, and the side effects are even worse.

TB strains resisting conventional treatment are present in virtually all countries, according to the WHO. The BRICS countries of fast-growing economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – account for more than half of cases.

Epidemiologist uses film in fight against S.Africa gold-mine TB

Jonathan Smith is trying to fight disease with facts, figures and – emotion.

Smith is using data-driven research as the basis for a documentary film he hopes will raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers in South African gold mines who, according to a 2011 report published in the American Journal of Public Health, contract tuberculosis (TB) at a rate 10 times higher than the populations from which they come.

Working conditions in the mines create a high-risk environment for TB transmission because of poor ventilation, exposure to silica dust and high HIV rates, said Smith, an epidemiology lecturer at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in an interview.

Migrant workers are sent home “to die” by the mining firms once they contract TB, spreading it into other parts of Africa already hard hit by the disease, he added.