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'Totally drug-resistant' tuberculosis takes root in South Africa

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 12th, 2013
Catholic Online (

One of the world's most infectious and deadliest respiratory diseases may have just crossed the line into being untreatable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Emerging Infectious Diseases journal says that the first cases of "totally drug-resistant" tuberculosis have been found in South Africa and that the disease is "virtually untreatable."

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The bacterial lung disease kills more people annually than any infectious disease besides HIV. Physicians typically have more than 10 drugs from which to choose. None of them have been helpful for Dr. Uvistra Naidoo, who contracted the disease in his clinic.

At one time an avid runner, Naidoo says that it wasn't until he went to visit his family in Durban that his family noticed he had lost more than 30 pounds.

"I had flu symptoms and chest pains, but I was still running so I didn't think anything was wrong," he says. But when he went in for an X-ray, doctors found that his entire right lung had filled with fluid. Within weeks, he was on his deathbed as his body wasn't responding to the most commonly prescribed antibiotics. "One night I nearly passed away - it didn't look good," he says.

Naidoo managed to survive, but he was in and out of the hospital for three years, and the drugs' side effects were almost unbearable, he says. He developed Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a complication that causes layers of skin to separate from each other, regularly bleeding from his eyes. He fell into a deep depression.

"The TB doesn't feel like it's killing you, but the drugs do. I am a doctor and was informed that the drugs you take make you feel worse," he says. "My case was three years long. I don't think the average patient has that kind of patience."

Tuberculosis has been rapidly evolving to fend off many effective antibiotics, making it more difficult to treat and even the most treatable forms of the disease are particularly tricky to cure. Drug-sensitive strains must be treated with a six-month course of antibiotics. Tougher cases require long-term hospitalization and a regimen of harsh drugs that can last years.

At the King George V hospital in Durban, one of South Africa's most popular TB clinics, the 200 beds are always full and there's a four to six-week waitlist for new patients.

TB is particularly easy to contract among people who have compromised immune systems due to HIV infection-a group that makes up about 12 percent of the country's population.

"There's a co-infection problem with HIV-a lot of XDR patients also have HIV and have to take eight TB drugs in addition to their HIV retrovirals," William Bishai, of the Johns Hopkins Center for TB Research Laboratory says. "The average uneducated person would be prone to giving up. There have been a number of suicides at King George V."


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