VATICAN CITY – Church leaders, along with the World Health Organization, have expressed concern over the increased rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis worldwide.
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at his general audience March 21, said the latest reports show that more work is still needed to effectively treat those who suffer from the disease.
World Tuberculosis Day, a WHO-sponsored initiative to focus attention on one of the world’s most deadly diseases, was being marked March 24. A WHO statement issued March 22 had good news and bad news: The rate of infection leveled off for the first time in 13 years, but new and potentially more lethal versions of the disease have emerged.
Monsignor Jean-Marie Musivi Mpendawatu, a member of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, told Catholic News Service that tuberculosis has the potential to be more dangerous than AIDS and malaria combined, because so many countries do not have the resources to prevent and treat the disease effectively.
“We cannot let down our guard against this disease,” he said. It is important to educate infected people about tuberculosis so that they know how to take basic steps to prevent spreading the illness, he said.
“The sick person has the right to be cured, and governments have an obligation to provide basic health care for their citizens,” said Monsignor Musivi Mpendawatu. Families of sick people also need to be helped, because they carry a heavy burden, he said.
The WHO statement said two strains of tuberculosis have caused particular concern: multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, which is resistant to the drugs most commonly used to treat tuberculosis, and extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is resistant to those drugs used if the initial ones do not work.
Extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis “has begun to wreak havoc in several parts of the world,” said the WHO statement.
To combat these new strains of tuberculosis, member states need to establish laboratories capable of diagnosing them, provide free treatment and establish policies to control the spread of the disease, the WHO statement said.
Monsignor Musivi Mpendawatu said organizations that treat people affected by tuberculosis face a large financial challenge once the disease becomes resistant to first-line drugs.
“Second-line drugs are usually under patent by the pharmaceutical companies, and generic versions are not available,” he said.
The church recognizes the drug companies’ right to recover their costs and make a profit, but not by sacrificing the sick person’s right to be treated, the monsignor said.
“In cases where entire populations risk being killed, governments need to use their right to not recognize drug patents so that generic drugs can be produced and sick people can be treated,” he said.
Although tuberculosis is most prevalent in Africa and the western Pacific region, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis has been reported in every country surveyed by the World Health Organization.