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Groups Take Aim at Tuberculosis

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Groups Take Aim at Tuberculosis

Global Health

Groups Take Aim at Tuberculosis

Groups Take Aim at Tuberculosis

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A new plan is under way to fight a disease that one-third of the world suffers from: tuberculosis. Hundreds of organizations are aiming to stop TB in the next 10 years. But to do that, it will take billions of dollars.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One-third of the world's population is estimated to be infected with tuberculosis. That gives you some idea of the challenge that hundreds of governments, nonprofits, and scientists have taken on when they announced a plan that they say could stop TB by the year 2015. They say $3 billion per year would fund new drugs, and get treatments to people who need them.

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON reporting:

Direct observable therapy, or DOTS, is still the backbone of fighting tuberculosis. That's where community health workers deliver treatment and watch to make the patient takes the medicine. A complete course could take up to six months. Not nearly enough people in countries burdened with high cases of the disease are reached by DOT's programs. But Dr. Bobby John of India says his government has shown that it can be done.

Dr. BOBBY JOHN (Director, Massive Effort Campaign for Southeast Asia): About 2002, we had about 300 million people effectively covered with TB services, out of a one billion population. In March of 2006, we are talking about entire population being covered with TB services. So, that's a remarkable scale up story. Not much has been talked about it. When you scale up a program 30 percent of the population to 100 percent of the population, and you're talking about a population size that's a billion plus, it means some significant amount of resources have gone in, a significant amount of thinking of planning has gone in. And, on the ground, it's beginning to create an impact.

WILSON: So far, more than five million people have been treated. And he says up to a million lives have been saved by the program. The next step is to bring treatment closer to where sick people are.

Dr. JOHN: We probably need to do more now to further go down closer to where people are, so that somebody who is sick and coughing does not need to travel 30 kilometers over non-existent roads, but finds it much closer.

WILSON: That's the plan the alliance says needs to be in place in poor countries around the world. Dr. Marie Freire, the head of the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, says researchers are trying to come up with treatments that don't require a patient to take 11 pills a day for up to six months.

Dr. MARIE FREIRE (CEO, Global Alliance for TB Drug Development): Current TB treatment works. That, in some instances, means taking 11 different pills every day for two months. And then you take two additional drugs for the remaining of the four-month period. You can imagine that when people have to take that kind of a regimen, they feel better after a short period of time, and then they stop taking their treatment. What happens is people develop multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for which the treatment is much more difficult, much lengthier. And for which we, frankly, are running out of drugs.

WILSON: And Freire says through the efforts of the alliance, promising new drugs to treat TB could be available as early as 2010. But all of this takes money. Yesterday, the British, Dutch, and Irish governments announced donations to uplink $14 million to accelerate the development of new TB drugs.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University says the overall plan will require three billion dollars a year from countries like the U.S.

Dr. JEFFREY SACHS (Director, Earth Institute, Columbia University): To put that in perspective, that is three dollars per year from each of us. That's all we're talking about, a cup of coffee once per year from a Starbucks. You do that over a decade. That's $30 billion. That shows how affordable is this fight against this massive killer.

WILSON: Sachs says there's momentum now, and a coherent plan to fight a disease that's caused suffering over the years.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News, New York.

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