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TB: A Global Epidemic, a Curable Disease

By Kristi Birch

This year, tuberculosis will kill 2 million people. According to the World Health Organization, another 2 billion people are infected with TB, and more than 9 million new cases occur annually.

And yet the disease is almost entirely curable. Today’s standard treatment—four drugs taken once a day for two months, and then two drugs for the next four months—cures TB 95 percent of the time, as long as the course of medicine is completed. But many stop too early.

Moreover, strains of TB have emerged that are resistant to isoniazid and rifampicin, the two most powerful anti-TB drugs. And HIV has provided the perfect vehicle for TB’s spread, making it the leading cause of death for people infected with HIV.

So how to control TB? “There isn’t a magic bullet,” says Richard Chaisson, MD, professor of Medicine, Epidemiology and International Health, and the director of Hopkins’ Center for Tuberculosis Research, where researchers are working on new vaccines to prevent TB, new tests to diagnose it and new treatments that take less time. And they’re devising new preventive therapies to keep the mycobacterium inactive in infected people.

Chaisson doesn’t expect to see TB wiped off the planet—not with a “reservoir of 2 billion infections. The goal for TB,” he says, “is just to control it so that it is not an epidemic.”