The medical aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has published a briefing paper about the alarming spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, which they refer to as the “biggest threat to global health you’ve never heard of.”

Tuberculosis (TB), which is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Every year, around 8 million people around the world fall ill with TB, and 1.3 million die of it.

TB spreads when a person with an active infection in the lungs coughs or sneezes droplets containing the bacteria into the air and these are then inhaled by someone else.

The disease usually affects the lungs, but it can also affect other organs. Typical symptoms include persistent coughing, sometimes with blood, weight loss, night sweats, fever, fatigue and loss of appetite.

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Each year, over 8 million people around the world fall ill with TB

Standard TB is curable, but because of inadequate global response, there is now a growing epidemic of strains that are drug resistant, says the briefing paper.

For example, Medical News Today reported on a Lancet study that found patients in South Africa with untreatable forms of TB were being discharged into the community and contributing to the spread of the disease.

The result is that deadlier drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) strains are spreading at an alarming rate, even to people who have never had TB before.

Drug-resistant TB is much harder to cure. Half a million new cases of it are diagnosed every year.

Standard drugs do not work, and doctors have to resort to long, expensive, complex and arduous treatments that only cure half of infected patients, at best.

MSF Medical Director Dr. Sidney Wong says:

The DR-TB crisis is everybody’s problem and demands an immediate international response. It doesn’t matter where you live; until new short and more effective treatment combinations are found, the odds of surviving this disease today are dismal.”

One of the reasons that DR-TB is spreading so rapidly is because only 1 in 5 people infected get the treatment they need. And when they do get the treatment, they have to endure 2 gruelling years of daily injections and have to swallow over 10,000 pills.

Moreover, the treatments are toxic and make the patients horrendously ill, with some becoming psychotic or suffering permanent loss of hearing.

And now, there are strains emerging that even harder to treat – multidrug-resistant TB or MDR-TB. MSF say cases of this have doubled in the UK over the last 10 years, and London is already regarded as the “TB capital of Western Europe.”

Although new drugs have recently become available, it will be years before they can make a difference, say MSF, because to be effective against DR-TB, drugs have to be used in combination and the new ones have not yet been tested together in clinical trials.

MSF urge governments, drug companies and researchers to act now to develop new, short, safe and effective treatments to fight the growing crisis of DR-TB.