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New WHO Report Exposes Disturbing Gaps in Treatment of Drug-Resistant TB

Every day hundreds of people with a deadly disease are being turned away from clinics and hospitals. Without proper treatment, they are asked to return home and are likely to infect others.

This isn’t just happening in West Africa—it’s happening all over the world. And the disease isn’t Ebola, its multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB); a form of tuberculosis (TB) resistant to the most commonly-used drugs to treat the disease.

Today the World Health Organization released its latest Global Tuberculosis Report, which showed 39,000 people diagnosed with MDR-TB are on waiting lists to get life-saving drugs – the first time such a waiting list number has been released. Improved tests have allowed more people to be diagnosed with the disease than ever before, but treatment hasn’t been able to keep up with demand.

Most countries require MDR-TB to be treated in a hospital, and there aren’t enough hospital beds or health care providers to treat all of the newly diagnosed patients. Similar to the current Ebola crisis, country health systems are ill-equipped to handle the demand in new diagnoses.

Other Main Findings:

• The more we look for TB, the more we find it: New and improved data is showing that the overall burden of TB in the world is higher than previously estimated, with 9 million new cases in 2013 and 1.5 million deaths.

• As Africa’s most populous country, increases to estimates of the TB burden in Nigeria also affect estimates for the African Region, where TB mortality in 2013 is now estimated to be 44% higher than 2012 estimates.

• There has been an overall 45% decline in TB mortality since 1990.

Still, experts think the waiting list represents only a fraction of people in need of treatment. Every year 480,000 people are estimated to become sick with MDR-TB – but only 28% get diagnosed. More than half of these cases are estimated to be in India, China, and Russia.

Access to care is only part of the problem; completing treatment is another story. The WHO estimates less than half of people given MDR-TB drugs successfully complete treatment. MDR-TB drugs have horrific side effects and treatment need to be taken for a minimum of 18 months, reflecting decades of underinvestment in research and development for new TB treatments. Treatment Action Group estimates an annual funding gap of $1.3 billion to develop new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics against TB.

This is not just a treatment gap – it’s an ethical gap. People are being diagnosed with a deadly disease and sent home without any treatment, allowing them to infect others in the community, and all but ensuring they will die.

The global fight against TB faces a $2 billion funding gap every year. We can no longer stand idly by as people are refused care – it’s time for the world to finally step up and invest in fighting this ancient disease.