Tuberculosis fight critical in Asia-Pacific, advocates warn

GINA RUSHTON, THE AUSTRALIAN AUGUST 31

Former architect Eloisa “Louie” Zepeda lost her sight but kept her spirit when the treatment for multi­-drug-resistant tuberculosis left her blind.

The disability advocate from The Philippines is among hundreds of delegates to attend the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease Asia-Pacific regional conference in Sydney starting today.

Tuberculosis, one of the most contagious diseases, is particularly prevalent in the Pacific region. However, doctors say treatments have not changed in decades, meaning many patients such as Ms Zepeda risk devastating side-effects from their medication.

“My parents had the means to help with my treatment but if you don’t have money, you’ll just end up blind or worse,” said Ms Zepeda, who was cured 10 years ago.

Many other Filipino tuberculosis sufferers were “pretty much dependent” on help from The Global Fund, an international financing organisation Ms Zepeda hopes Australia will continue to support.

“Louie is the living example of why we need better tools to combat tuberculosis — if we had better tools, she would be able to see today,” said Maree Nutt, the chief executive of the non-profit advocate group Results.

During the conference, her organisation will host international and local parliamentarians, including federal MP Warren Entsch, with the aim of forming a permanent Asia-Pacific caucus to address the disease.

In March, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop pledged $30 million to the Indo-Pacific region for research into drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria but Ms Nutt said Australia had to “keep its foot on the accelerator”.

“More than nine million people get tuberculosis annually, and more than half of those are in our region,” she said.

In his keynote speech at the conference, the director of the World Health Organisation’s tuberculosis program, Mario Raviglione, will talk about a regional approach to the issue. “In this area, tuberculosis kills more people than HIV and AIDS,” he said.

Dr Raviglione said the prescribed six-month treatment for tuberculosis costs about $30.

“The drugs for multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis have a lower cure rate and are more toxic than the four drugs used for regular tuberculosis, with side-effects like hearing or sight loss, psychological problems (and) kidney and liver problems,” he said.

Unlike its Pacific neighbours, Australia recorded only 20-30 resistant cases of tuberculosis a year and could eliminate the disease completely in a few decades.

However, there were concerns about multi-drug-resistant cases in Papua New Guinea that could travel across the Torres Strait into Australia.

Tony Abbott was briefed on the issue last week.

Meanwhile, Ms Zepeda, despite being told she would never conceive, has a two-year-old daughter, Zoe, whom she wants to grow up in a “tuberculosis-free world”.