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Alarm Bells Ring over Drug-resistant Strain of Tuberculosis

Doctors said Tuesday that Atlanta lawyer Andrew Speaker does not appear to be carrying a highly contagious type of tuberculosis, but world health officials said his case still raises concerns over the need to control the disease, particularly drug-resistant strains.

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    Doctors reported today that the Atlanta lawyer who traveled overseas and back with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis does not appear to be highly contagious for now. But they made clear he'll be in the hospital for at least a few months, and possibly much longer.

    The case of Andrew Speaker is still sparking alarm about the risks of TB in an era of global travel. Tuberculosis remains a major health threat worldwide. Though U.S. cases hit an all-time low last year of just under 13,800, globally the picture is different. There were 8.8 million new cases worldwide in 2005, more than 7 million of them in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; 1.6 million people died from it.

    Public health authorities are particularly concerned about the rise of drug-resistant forms of the disease, like the strain of bacteria that infected Andrew Speaker. Today in Geneva, the World Health Organization said the Speaker case underscored the need for comprehensive action to detect, control, and treat TB, and to find new drugs.

    Here to tell us more is NewsHour health correspondent Susan Dentzer.

    So, Susan, when we refer to drug-resistant TB, what are we talking about?

  • SUSAN DENTZER, NewsHour Health Correspondent:

    Margaret, drug-resistant TB is TB that arises because of misuse of medication. Basically, when you're diagnosed with tuberculosis, the typical plan of action is you go on several antibiotic drugs for six to nine months, and you have to stay on that treatment through that entire period.

    If you don't, certain organisms, bacteria, tuberculosis bacteria in your body that are drug-resistant, will flourish. That's led to, in recent decades, drug-resistant TB. In addition, we've had multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis develop. This is TB that is resistant to two of the well-used, very powerful, first-line antibiotics, including the drug Rifampin.

    And then, most recently, we've had the emergence of so-called extremely or extensively drug-resistant TB, XDR TB, which is resistant not only to those first-line drugs, also to one of a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones — some people may know the drug Cipro; that's one of them — and then, finally, to the second line of drugs, including one of the injectable forms of that.

    So if you're resistant to all of those, you have extremely or extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis.