BEIJING, China (AP) -- The Gates Foundation is funding tests of
new treatments for tuberculosis patients in China, part of a
critical worldwide effort to stanch emerging, hard-to-cure
strains of the disease that the World Health Organization says
are like a time bomb.
One of the world's oldest and deadliest infectious diseases, TB
has mutated into hardier forms that withstand some of the most
commonly used medicines. Left unchecked, people with
drug-resistant TB could spread the disease to others, creating a
widespread epidemic in the highly mobile global economy.
At a meeting of health ministers in Beijing, software magnate
Bill Gates' foundation and the Chinese government announced a $33
million project that initially covers 20 million people in six
provinces and will be expanded to 100 million people over five
New approaches being tried include tests that diagnose
drug-resistant TB in hours instead of weeks and drug combinations
that at least halve the number of pills patients have to take.
Mobile phone text messages will be used to track patients and
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told health ministers and
senior officials from 27 countries worst-affected by the new
drug-resistant strains of TB that they must make dramatic
improvements in detecting infections and build stronger health
"Call it what you may - a time bomb or a powder keg," Chan said
at the opening of a three-day meeting on drug-resistant TB in
Beijing. "Any way you look at it, this is a potentially explosive
Countries attending the meeting said Wednesday they would draw up
national plans to provide drug-resistant TB patients with access
to treatment by 2015, ensure a sufficient supply of anti-TB
drugs, better train health workers and other measures aimed at
controlling the spread of drug-resistant strains.
The disease is caused by germs that spread when a person with
active TB coughs, sneezes or speaks. It's ancient and treatable
but now has evolved into stronger forms: multidrug-resistant TB,
which does not respond to two top drugs, and extensively
drug-resistant TB, which is virtually untreatable.
The problem has been partly blamed on health care systems that
lose track of patients who do not complete their courses of
treatment, allowing the TB bacteria to develop resistance to
normally potent medicines.
In 2007, 1.75 million people died of tuberculosis. Of the more
than 9 million people around the world who contract the disease
every year, about 500,000 get multi-drug resistant TB. The WHO
estimates that 150,000 people die of drug-resistant TB every year
Nearly a quarter of those who contract the drug-resistant strains
are in China, where legions of rural migrants face an inadequate
health care system.
It is also a problem in India, where rural health care is often
poor and there is little control over the sale of anti-TB drugs;
Russia, which faces a shortage of qualified medical staff and
drugs; and South Africa, where the disease thrives amid an AIDS
epidemic that has weakened the immune systems of people with HIV.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation chose to fund the TB project
in China because the disease is such a large problem on the
mainland and the foundation hopes any success in tackling it
there will likely help push new approaches elsewhere.
"Because of its skill, its scale, its TB burden, its love of
innovation, and its political commitment to public health, China
is a perfect laboratory for large-scale testing of new tools and
delivery techniques to fight TB," Gates said at a news
Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders,
welcomed the Gates project but said China should not neglect
other drug-resistant TB sufferers in the country who are not
covered by the program.
"It's a big pilot project but the question is what happens to all
the other patients who need treatment now and what will be
provided to them while this project is ongoing in the next five
years," said MSF's Tido von Schoen-Angerer.
TB is usually treated in six months with a $20 cocktail of four
antibiotics, but its drug-resistant form takes up to two years
and is at least 100 times more expensive to fight.