Lack of new TB medications may be encouraging drug resistant strains

Experts are concerned that drug resistant strains of tuberculosis will be encouraged by a lack of new medicines to fight the disease.

Over 200 researchers from around the world will meet in Cameroon this week at a symposium to plan the next steps that are needed to be taken, VOA News reports.

Dr. Paul Herrling, head of the Novartis Institutions for Developing World Medical Research, believes there are many reasons behind the prevalence of TB in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"The first one is that the last medicines that we had for TB are about 40 years old," Herrling explained to VOA News. "And one thing that people did not know at that time, is that this is a very, very clever bacteria - like many others.  And when they are treated with the same medicines for a long time, they learn to escape it."

The symposium is being held in Cameroon because, according to Herring, it is crucial that the scientists developing the treatments understand something about the everyday realities of their patients.

"It is extremely important to understand not only the molecular biology of your patients, but their culture, their environment, their problems," Herrling said, VOA News reports. "And so very often our scientists, they live in laboratories working on TB sitting in Harvard or in London, and they have no clue as to what the disease really is. And on the other hand, local doctors here have no access to the most modern science."

Of the 9 million people infected with TB last year, 30 percent live in Africa. It kills 2 million people each year and is especially prevalent in those that suffer from HIV or AIDS.

"So many people are infected with tuberculosis, but they are healthy and have no symptoms, because their immune system keeps it in check," Herrling said. "And of course, exactly what HIV does, it weakens your immune system and then those people who were healthy before now become actively sick and can infect others.  So it is very much reinforcing or making the problem much worse."