Health experts yesterday called for more research funding to develop better diagnostic tests, vaccines and drugs for tuberculosis, which killed 1.8 million people around the world last year.
While diseases like AIDS and malaria can be diagnosed in minutes by applying a drop of blood to a rapid test kit, confirming active tuberculosis, or TB, is a laborious procedure.
It requires a patient to cough up sputum, which is smeared on a slide, stained and examined under a microscope.
And the 100-year-old test misses up to 70% of otherwise positive cases in some places, experts say.
In Africa, where the scourge of TB is most keenly felt, many people delay follow-up testing because of cost.
“A lot of people die before a TB diagnosis is even made,” Dr Jeremiah Chakaya of the Kenya Medical Research Institute told reporters at an international conference on lung health in Cancun, Mexico.
Chakaya and other experts believe that a highly sensitive blood or urine test for TB could become a reality. But given the lack of funding, it is unlikely such a test will reach the market before 2015.
Between 2006 and 2007, investment in TB research rose by $56 million to a total of $474 million. But between 2007 and 2008, investment rose by just $36 million to $510 million.
“With current investment rates, millions of people will continue to suffer and die unnecessarily of TB because the world stood by and refused to revitalize desperately needed TB research funding,” said Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group, an HIV and TB advocacy group.
Better drugs, better vaccines needed
There were 9.4 million new cases of active TB in 2008, up from 9.27 million in 2007, according to new data released by the World Health Organization’s Stop TB Department yesterday.
While one in every three people in the world is infected with TB, only 10 percent will develop active TB, due mostly to a weakened immune system caused by diseases such as AIDS.
With the exception of Pfizer Inc’s rifabutin, a drug used to treat tuberculosis for those with drug-resistant HIV/AIDS, there have been no newly licensed drugs for TB in 40 years.
And the effectiveness of the Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) TB vaccine, which has been around since 1919, is in doubt.
“Wouldn’t one think that the largest killer of any single infection deserves better, newer tools?” said Lee Reichman of the Global Tuberculosis Institute at the New Jersey Medical School.
In the pipeline are two experimental drugs and nine vaccines for TB, which the experts said would need funding to push into clinical trials.
“The need for new TB tests, drugs and vaccines is obvious,” Chakaya said.