Chair of the TB Forum Dr Justin Denholm, Louie Zepeda and Julie Bishop

SBS Television News 23 March 2015

By Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath

The federal government has pledged $30 million over three years in the Indo-Pacific region for research on the growing threat of drug resistant tuberculosis and malaria, as experts warn of ‘a plague on our doorstep’.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has has pledged $30 million over three years to help bring new diagnostic tests and drugs to market to tackle drug resistant Tuberculosis (TB) and Malaria.

Ms Bishop made the announcement in Canberra at the launch of the Australasian Tuberculosis Forum.

“Drug resistant TB and malaria pose a threat to health security in our region and carry a high burden for our Asia-Pacific neighbours,” Ms Bishop said.

The TB Alliance will receive $10 million to support late state clinical trials of new TB treatments. The Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) will receive $10 million for the development of better diagnostic tools and testing. Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) will receive the last $10 million for the development of antimalarial drugs.

TB fast becoming drug-resistant, experts warn

Tuberculosis is one of the world’s most contagious diseases. But with a drug resistant strain going under the radar, experts warn TB is fast becoming a significant global health problem.

1.2 million people die each year from tuberculosis and the number is growing making it one of the globe’s most serious health problems.

More than half of the global TB cases occur in the Indo-Pacific region.

On World TB day an advocate from the Philippines left blinded after tuberculosis treatment has told Australian politicians her story and called for more research and better treatments for this highly contagious disease.

Eloisa ‘Louie’ Zepeda was struck down with TB as a young professional woman in Manila. She survived but only just.

“I can’t go back to being an architect anymore,” she told her Canberra audience.

After she lost her sight, Ms Zepeda retrained in public policy and is now an advocate fighting TB around the world.

TB is one of the world’s most contagious diseases. Each year nine million people are infected, one in three gets no treatment and one in six die.

Fifty-six per cent of all new cases are in South East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Australia had 1,300 TB notifications in 2011 according to the latest figures from the Communicable Diseases Network Australia.

One recent diagnosis was of a young high school student in north Queensland.

“Effectively we have an absolute plague that is right on our doorstep four kilometres away in western Papua New Guinea,” says north Queensland Liberal Warren Entsch who hosted Ms Zepeda’s visit to Parliament.

“Only two weeks ago we had a young lass at one of the local high school diagnosed with drug resistant tuberculosis earlier we had two deaths a mother and a daughter in Cairns hospital,” Mr Entsch said TB has spread to some islands in the Torres Strait from Papua New Guinea.

Mr Entsch said there isn’t enough known about the disease in the far north.

“We are facing a tremendous new problem which is drug-resistant Tuberculosis. The bug is evolving to become more resistant to the drugs.”

Ms Zepeda and a team of researchers and advocates visited Canberra for World TB Day. They say that multi-drug resistant TB is a significant global health problem that hasn’t been given enough attention.

Treatments ‘haven’t changed in decades’

At a briefing for journalists, doctors showed slides suggesting treatments haven’t changed in decades and diagnostic tools haven’t been updated.

Not enough money has been put into vaccinations.

Doctors say that Ms Zepeda’s story of being left blinded by TB treatment is all too common as treatments have not modernised.

“When the physicians heard it was TB they gave me the first line of medication but in the first few weeks I am starting to see some blurry patches in my vision,” she said.

Ms Zepeda also spoke of debilitating depression as a result of treatment. She said after meeting with other TB survivors in the Philippines she found that they all had suffered from depression.

Ulzii Gurjav TB researcher from Mongolia currently at the University of Sydney, said the global threat is very real.

“In the modern world we are facing a tremendous new problem which is drug-resistant Tuberculosis. The bug is evolving to become more resistant to the drugs,” Ulzii Gurjav said. “TB is transmitted through the air so no wonder it is spreading so quickly, we need to have better control of tuberculosis.”

Ms Zepeda’s message is that this is not just a problem for developing countries.

“It is a huge possibility that it will affect other countries rapidly. ”

Shortly Ms Zepeda returns to Manila. She hopes policy makers in Australia are listening.

March 24 is World TB Day.

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