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Health

Australians have made a breakthrough against the world’s leading infectious killer!

Flickr- Alec Couros

It would be easy to mistake tuberculosis (TB) for a disease of the past. Ancient Egyptian mummies have been discovered with traces of the bacteria, and other famous victims include Emily Bronte (1848), Frédéric Chopin (1849), and George Orwell (1950). But, as the World Health Organization points out, TB remains a global emergency, and it’s making history all over again. TB recently overtook HIV and AIDS to become the infectious disease responsible for the most deaths globally each year: 1.5 million people in 2014.

There’s good news though. A team of researchers at Australia’s Deakin University have discovered that a number of chemical compounds can stop the TB bacteria from growing. The compounds provide an excellent starting point for the development of new therapies for TB. And what makes this news an even more pleasant surprise is that the Deakin team’s discovery actually came about while testing the compounds as a way to treat prostate cancer!

Although TB is already preventable and usually curable, most of the medicines currently used to treat it have been around for more than 50 years now – that’s a long time, and they’re losing their punch. Drug-resistance is a growing problem, and whereas standard TB is curable in 6 months and at low cost, treatment for Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis requires up to two years of highly toxic medicines – more than 10 pills and injections per day – causing very difficult side-effects and costing hundreds if not thousands of times as much. This makes successful completion of treatment even less likely, particularly in areas with weak health systems, which in turn leads to further drug-resistance.

The Deakin discovery has come along right when a way to speed up the fight was needed the most. The Global Goals have set 2030 as the target date for ending several epidemics, including TB and HIV. We’re making good progress on HIV, but at the present rate it will take until 2180 to end TB. And in a cruel twist, TB is actually blocking the path to ending preventable HIV deaths: the leading cause of death for people living with HIV, claiming 1 in 3 lives, is – you guessed it – TB.

The Australian researchers’ breakthrough could help turn the tide, and make history for a happier reason. There are other things we need, of course, including a fully-financed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria so that donor contributions can ensure such treatments reach all areas where they are lacking. The Global Fund is replenished every three years by governments and other donors, with the next of these replenishment due to occur in 2016. Having been US$1.4 billion short this year, the next breakthrough we’ll need is of the financial variety.

But, as the ongoing effort to eradicate polio is showing, the finances can be found when there is sufficient political will. And if the Australian Government can back up the leadership of Australia’s scientists, and encourage other donors to increase their contributions to the Global Fund, hopefully TB’s next entry in the history books will read:

“Eradicated in 2030.”