Brussels, 21 March 2000 — There is an urgent need for practical and affordable treatments for tuberculosis. TB kills 2 million people each year. Almost all these deaths occur in the developing world.
However, there is almost no research and development for new medicines. Despite a wealth of knowledge on TB, the last novel medicine was developed over 30 years ago and the last vaccine was developed in 1923.
Médecins Sans Frontières calls on governments to ensure there is greater research and development of medicines for infectious diseases like TB.
"Drug companies have shifted their agenda towards diseases that affect people in rich countries" says Dr James Orbinski, president of MSF's International Council. "Even though 2 million people die every year from TB, it is almost totally ignored by the pharmaceutical industry".
Shorter and simpler TB treatments are needed. The most effective existing treatment – DOTS – has significant labour costs for governments and wage and social costs for patients that make it impractical in most settings.
"One of the reasons that so many people are dying of TB is that old treatments are too complex and need to be taken for a minimum of six months," explained Dr Orbinski.
In addition, TB is becoming resistant to many of the standard drugs. Multi-drug resistant TB (MDR TB) costs between $US 5,000 and 8,000 to treat. "MDR TB drugs must be made available at an affordable price. For the majority of patients, MDR TB is a death sentence," says Dr Orbinski. [In conjunction with WHO, MSF is negotiating an agreement with drug manufacturers to dramatically decrease the price of MDR TB drugs to around $US 1,500 per patient.]
According to Dr Orbinski: "Governments have a political responsibility to promote, protect and ensure peoples' right to health care. In the face of a major public health emergency like TB, governments must either intervene in the market or establish public capacity for new drug development."
"To date, government has failed, the pharmaceutical industry has failed, and market forces alone will fail to respond to TB. TB is a social and political problem and a failure to act today will have incalculable consequences for generations to come around the world."
Dr James Orbinski will speak at the WHO Ministerial Conference on TB and Sustainable Development in Amsterdam, 24 March 2000.
Currently supporting more than 20 TB programmes world-wide, Médecins Sans Frontières is campaigning for access to essential medicines.