New drugs, test offer hope against TB

Thousands of scientists, activists and disease survivors recently wrapped up a global conference on lung health dominated by the announcement of several breakthroughs in the battle against tuberculosis.

Doctors and aid workers are tackling the world’s deadliest infectious disease in numerous ways.

Miracle drug

Some strains of TB — a severe lung infection that can spread to the brain — are resistant to antibiotics and have been historically extremely difficult, and painful, to treat.

Several countries including South Africa, which has among the highest tuberculosis burden in the world, announced that a new drug had shown astonishing success against multidrug-resistant TB.

Bedaquiline, which in countries such as Belarus cured 80% of patients, was hailed by experts as a “game changer”, and can replace months of excruciating and often ineffective injections for sufferers.

In terms of prevention, major headway has been made on a new vaccine against TB, the first in almost a century.

GlaxoSmithKline showed in a trial in three African nations that its vaccine had a 54% effectiveness in subjects who already have TB but are yet to become sick with it.

“Such a level of efficacy could really provide an impact on global health,” Marie-Ange Demoitie, who leads the vaccine development for GSK, said.

Screening children

In a last minute announcement, scientists at the conference unveiled a revolutionary new way of screening children for tuberculosis. They say the new technique, which involves analysing stool samples of infants, will prevent hundreds of thousands each year from contracting the disease.

The only current way of checking a child for TB involves a painful procedure and usually a stay overnight in hospital, rendering it out of reach for many in rural areas. An estimated 650 children die every day of TB, with a majority of them never getting treatment.

Targeted treatment

An innovative approach to getting to at-risk children showed remarkable success in four African countries.

Those found not to have active TB — the bacteria is latent in around a quarter of humans — were given preventative treatment for three months, half the current course length.

Of the nearly 2000 children who enrolled, 92% of those treated completed the course successfully.

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