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Super strains of tuberculosis on the rise in Australia

Thursday 24 March 2011

Experts warn about the increase in drug-resistant TB on World TB Day (24 March)

A recent tuberculosis scare at Liverpool Hospital made many people realise that Australia is not a tuberculosis-free nation. Each year more than 1100 cases of TB are reported in Australia.  And worse, TB experts at the Centenary Institute warn that the greatest threat to tuberculosis control is the steady rise in Australia and around the world in multi-drug resistant “super” strains of tuberculosis known as MDR-TB.

In 2007, there were 24 cases of MDR-TB but this jumped by 30 percent in just two years with 31 cases of MDR-TB detected in 2009. This is a significant increase on just 8 cases reported in 2000.

Centenary Institute senior tuberculosis researcherDr Bernadette Saunders said: “Although the number infected might seem small the emergence of super strains of TB poses a serious and costly threat to controlling the disease in Australia.”

One person who knows the personal effects of MDR-TB is 28 year old Sydney-sider Christiaan van Vuuren. He shot to fame when his YouTube comedic rap videos, parodying his life in quarantine for the disease, caused an online sensation that has
clocked up over 2.3 million views. Christiaan (aka “The Fully Sick Rapper”) is joining with the Centenary Institute this year for World TB Day to help raise awareness about TB and drug-resistant TB.

Dr Saunders said: “Ten years ago Australia would only have about one case of MDR-TB per state each year. However, there has been a steady increase in the number of MDR-TB cases across Australia.  We’ve even had a reported case of extensively-drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB). These new super strains of tuberculosis are very difficult to treat with the current drugs, which are over 50 years old.

Christiaan added: “This time last year I was four months into almost seven months of quarantine in a Sydney hospital to treat multi-drug resistant TB. I became infected with TB while travelling overseas. It was a challenge to go through the treatment, but I felt really fortunate that I had access to the right drugs.

“I’ve now been out of quarantine for a while now, and I’m doing some awesome stuff that I would never have dreamed of doing before my time in hospital. I was really lucky though. Sadly, 2 billion people in the world are infected with TB and each year almost 2 million people die from TB. And about 440,000 people will be diagnosed with MDR-TB each year. We need to develop new ways, tests, vaccines and drugs to control TB especially these new forms of TB that are resistant to the current drugs.”

Drug resistance occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change in ways that render medications ineffective in treating the infections. When the microorganisms become resistant to most drugs they are often referred to as ‘superbugs’. This is a major concern because drug-resistant infections become difficult and sometimes impossible to treat. It can lead to increases in new cases, treatment costs and sometimes deaths.

Dr Saunders said: “The Centenary Institute is working on a number of projects to improve the fight against the spread of TB and drug-resistant tuberculosis. The Centenary Institute is involved in TB research to develop new tests, vaccines and drugs to diagnose, treat and prevent the disease, especially drug-resistant strains of TB bacteria.”

Quick facts about TB

  • One third of the world’s population carry the TB bacteria – that’s 2 billion people
  • More than 1.7 million people will die each year from TB
  • South East Asia has one of the fastest growing rates of TB in the world
  • In 2007, Australia had 1135 reported cases of TB
  • In 2009, Australia had 31 cases of MDR-TB

For more information on tuberculosis, visit www.tb.org.au or call the Centenary Institute on (02) 9565 6100.

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