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Eli Lilly to help train doctors on drug-resistant TB

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S. pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly will donate $1 million to train doctors treating tuberculosis (TB), a disease that infects 9 million people every year and kills nearly 2 million.

A patient who tested positive for extreme drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) awaits treatment at a rural hospital at Tugela Ferry in South Africa's impoverished KwaZulu Natal province, South Africa, October 28, 2006. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The interactive online course is meant as a refresher for physicians on the best ways to diagnose, prevent and treat the respiratory infection that spreads through coughs and sneezes and can be especially deadly for people with HIV or AIDS.

“This will allow more physicians around the world to acquire the basic knowledge on standard TB management at a time when there is a resurgence of the epidemic,” Eli Lilly said in a joint statement with the World Medical Association.

The emergence and spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis germs have hindered international efforts to stop its spread. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 5 percent of tuberculosis cases worldwide cannot be cured with the first-line antibiotics normally prescribed.

Nearly a third of the world’s population is infected with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, although active TB only develops in a fraction of those cases. The dormant bacteria can become active when a patient’s immunity levels decrease, for instance if they contract HIV or become pregnant.

Public health officials blame diagnostic and treatment errors on the development of multi-drug resistant strains of tuberculosis, which can be difficult and costly to treat.

Extremely drug-resistant (XDR) tuberculosis that cannot be treated with standard antibiotics has also sprung up as a result of inadequate response to multi-drug resistant strains, such as when the wrong antibiotics are prescribed or when patients do not take the full course of their drugs.

Tuberculosis can also go undetected for extended periods, especially in poor countries where coughing patients can be left in close proximity to those with HIV and other immune-weakening conditions in hospitals and clinics.

Air travel has also helped proliferate XDR tuberculosis strains in 41 countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Iran, Russia, France, Britain, Spain, India, Australia and Japan.

“The knowledge and handling of tuberculosis treatment is still insufficient,” Eli Lilly and the World Medical Association said in a joint statement that said incomplete treatment “is responsible for the occurrence of extremely drug resistant TB”.

The World Medical Association is contemplating an ethics policy to see “whether and how patients can be encouraged to complete their treatment regimen and where the autonomy of a patient ends in order to safeguard public health”, it said.

Health experts have called for improved coordination between airlines and government agencies to keep those with active TB from traveling by air, as occurred a year ago when an Atlanta lawyer with a multi-drug resistant strain flew to Greece and Italy for his wedding and honeymoon and then returned to the United States through Canada.

Editing by Will Waterman