The world could face an epidemic of untreatable tuberculosis if action is not taken, doctors warn, as cases of the strain have popped up in South Africa.
These cases present a “totally drug-resistant” version of the disease, according to a paper published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.
Many clinics in the country have seen the bacterial lung infection in high numbers.
Tuberculosis has always been prevalent in South Africa, where high HIV rates mean many are susceptible to the infection.
In 2011, the infection killed 1.4 million globally. But doctors warn this strain could kill even more.
The infection was able to become drug-resistant after many suffering with the illness only partially treated it. Therefore, the bacteria was able to “learn” and morph itself into a stronger version.
Dr. Uvistra Naidoo, who treats those stricken with TB, caught the multi drug-resistant disease but fought it after undergoing a cocktail of powerful drugs. These drugs gave him life-threatening side effects and it took him three years to beat.
He contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a complication that causes skin layers to separate and bleed. He frequently bled from his eyes.
“The TB doesn’t feel like it’s killing you, but the drugs do,” he said. “My case was three years long. I don’t think the average patient has that kind of patience.”
The multi drug resistant strain isn’t necessarily new, as the World Health Organization warned in 2010 that some areas of the world could be struck with tuberculosis that “can no longer be treated with standard drug regimens.”
While most of the developed world is vaccinated, there are 22 “high burden” countries dealing with the disease, including South Africa.
These places account for about 80 percent of all cases of TB.
America was affected by a drug-resistant strain of the infection, as a New York hospital experienced an outbreak in the early 90s.
During that outbreak, 32 patients were infected and only three survived.
Outbreaks of it have been reported in Peru, Russia, and India as well.
New drugs need to be developed to fight the infection and prevent an epidemic.
Karin Weyer, coordinator of the World Health Organization’s Stop TB department, said, “It’s encouraging we have a few drugs in the pipeline, but we need several new ones, with new mechanisms of action, to protect against new resistances.”