March 22, 2012. London. Mankind’s longtime adversary Tuberculosis is quietly becoming a formidable foe once again. And nowhere are there more examples than the world’s largest and wealthiest cities. Once considered a beaten disease by the simplest of human weapons, antibiotics, the deadly disease has recently mutated. Now, no longer susceptible to any known medicine, this strain of the highly contagious and deadly disease is rapidly spreading throughout the western world.
Effects of tuberculosis on the lungs as scene in this chest xray. Image courtesy of the state of Utah.
In a recent report, Reuters detailed the shock and surprise of an otherwise healthy London woman who was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Months of weight loss, night sweats and shortness of breath finally led the woman to the doctor. There, she was horrified to learn she had contracted TB. The story credits the woman with being partially happy about the news. At least she finally discovered what had been making her feel so terrible the past weeks. Now, a simple remedy of antibiotics and the woman would be as good as new. Or would she?
At first, the patient wondered how in the world she’d caught an ancient disease associated with poverty stricken countries in Africa. The last time TB was a major problem in the west, it was referred to as ‘consumption’ or ‘the white plague’. “My friends were really shocked" the woman told Reuters, "Most of them had only heard of TB from reading Victorian novels."
What is Tuberculosis?
Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or TB for short, is a bacterial infection that targets a human’s lungs. Destroying the lung’s tissue, victims spend agonizing months with an unyielding dry cough. The cough soon finds victims coughing up blood. Destruction of the lung tissue results in shortness of breath accompanied by shivers, shakes and night sweats. TB is a highly contagious, airborne bacteria. It is when its victims cough that the disease is spread through the air. It’s for that reason that densely packed cities like London, dubbed by the report as ‘the tuberculosis capital of Europe’, are seeing rising numbers of TB cases.
Drug resistant TB
After our above TB patient was diagnosed with the bacterial infection, she was given a three-part dose of antibiotics, specially formulated to kill the tuberculosis bacteria. After six weeks, the medication was having no effect. Doctors then changed their diagnosis from tuberculosis to multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). That means there is no cure. It’s no coincidence that the disease’s call letters contain a dash. There are a number of diseases that are now ‘multi-drug resistant’ (MDR). Ancient TB is just one of the devastating diseases on that ever-growing list.
Experts insist that the transformation of the TB bacteria has gone even further. The first stage is called ‘drug resistant’, followed by ‘multi-drug resistant’, then ‘extensively drug resistant’. Now, tuberculosis has been officially given the status of ‘totally drug resistant’. And with millions of people packed into high density cities throughout the world, it is there that the incurable disease has been appearing. The west is not alone either. The article specifically points out that the drug-resistant TB strain is spreading throughout Africa and Asia. It is there that scientists fear the worst. India appears to be the hardest hit by the ‘totally resistant’ strain of the disease.
The future of TB
The report quotes TB expert and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Ruth McNerney warning, “We can't afford this genie to get out of the bag. Because once it has, I don't know how we'll control TB.”
In 2010, 8.8 million people were infected with regular TB worldwide. And the World Health Organization predicts that by 2015, more than 2 million people will have been infected by multi-drug resistant TB. Doctors insist that an infected TB patient may typically infect as many as 10 to 12 additional people during their year-long bout with the disease.
It’s a "totally man-made disease"
According to another World Health Organization representative, Lucica Ditiu, drug-resistant TB “is a totally man-made disease.” Ditiu, from the WHO’s ‘Stop TB Partnership’ explains, “The doctors, the healthcare workers, the nurses, entire healthcare systems have produced MDR-TB. It's not a bug that has come from nature. It's not a spontaneous mutation. It came about because patients were treated badly – either with poor quality drugs, or not enough drugs, or with insufficient observation so the patient didn't finish the treatment course."
The report spotlights Dr. Zarir Udwadia, a tuberculosis specialist at the Hinduja National Hospital in Mumbai. At the end of 2011, Doctor Udwadia published his current experience with MDR-TB among his patients in hopes of soliciting ideas to stop the disease. He detailed his failures using all known anti-TB treatments among his 4 MDR-TB patients. In just the few months since he published his crisis, 3 of the patients have died. He now has 12 MDR-TB patients and the number is growing. According to the Reuters report, India currently has 100,000 cases of multi-drug resistant TB.
After seeing no results using the traditional antibiotics, the doctor reports, “If you add it all up, they were resistant to 12 drugs in total." Dr. Udwadia has taken matters into his own hands. Not only has he experimented with new anti-TB remedies by using tissue from his late MDR-TB patients, but he also conducted an experiment to show just how ill-equipped India’s medical industry is with fighting the rapidly spreading and incurable disease.
Fanning throughout his home city of Mumbai, population 12 million, doctor Udwaidia surveyed a sampling of the city’s thousands of physicians. He found that only 5 out of 106 doctors knew the correct drug combinations to prescribe to MDR-TB patients.
It’s in the water
While drug-resistant disease experts continue to point the finger at the medical industry for over-prescribing antibiotics, even in instances where these is no call for it, it may be too late to stop the catastrophe. Investigations in 2008 found antibiotics are so prevalent in American society that tests on drinking water from from around the US discovered shocking levels of numerous antibiotics, most specifically those used to treat infants and children like amoxicillin, ampicillin and a half dozen more. The test also found disturbing levels of estrogen treatments and birth control pharmaceuticals.
The pharmaceutical industry blames the infection of the nation’s drinking water with drugs on patients who don’t follow their doctor’s instructions by taking all the prescribed medication. Instead, industry promoters insist, Americans are flushing their pills down the toilet by the billions. Critics say that argument is a cover story for the fact that pharmaceutical drugs have been pushed into the hands of Americans, especially those with insurance, to the point that their drugs have also invaded our country’s food supply.
With human beings being constantly given low doses of antibiotics in our drinking water and food supply, more and more deadly bacteria and their associated diseases will become drug resistant and join the likes of tuberculosis as highly contagious and suddenly incurable.