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Soros Joins Health Groups to Battle Drug-Resistant TB, HIV Explosion

NEW YORK—George Soros and leading health organizations today announced funding to develop a groundbreaking treatment program for people with drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in poor countries. This combination of diseases is usually lethal.

The coalition, including the Open Society Institute, Partners In Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the RESULTS Educational Fund called upon wealthy governments to halt the dual epidemics and fortify basic TB control.

According to the groups, extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) threatens to reverse progress in fighting HIV/AIDS, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and has emerged as a top priority for world health officials.

“Right now, XDR-TB is considered a death sentence, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Soros, chair and founder of the Open Society Institute (OSI).

Soros announced the foundation’s $3 million grant to help health care workers in Lesotho, a small southern African country, more effectively treat people dually infected with drug-resistant TB and HIV/AIDS. Building on the Lesotho project, Partners In Health (PIH) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital will pioneer development of the first global treatment guidelines for this deadly combination of disease.

“I hope that my contribution will catalyze action and funding to curb this global emergency before more lives are lost,” added Soros. “The Lesotho program must be part of a much larger effort to provide TB treatment to the millions who need it—and that means wealthy governments must dig into their coffers.”

The World Health Organization reports that XDR-TB has been found in 28 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and every other member state of the Group of 8. But Dr. Jim Yong Kim, co-founder of PIH and former director of the WHO’s department on HIV/AIDS, said the epidemic could be much more pervasive.

“Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the laboratory capacity to diagnose XDR-TB, so it is likely what we are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Kim, who is based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard University, and the Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

New evidence highlights the growing danger of XDR-TB for people who are HIV-positive. At an international scientific conference in Los Angeles two weeks ago, researchers reported that 85 percent of South Africans who had both diseases died.

The treatment program will be piloted in Lesotho, a small country bordering South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal province. Last August, an XDR-TB outbreak in that province killed 52 of 53 patients—half within just 16 days. With one of the three highest HIV prevalence rates and the fifth highest rate of TB in the world, Lesotho would be particularly vulnerable to the rapid spread of XDR-TB.

“The growth of XDR-TB highlights a global failure to prevent and treat basic TB,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, the co-founder of PIH, who is based at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “TB can be treated with a simple, inexpensive drug regimen. But when we fail to do this well, TB becomes drug-resistant.”

In 2005, there were 9 million new cases of TB. The WHO estimates that $5 billion is needed for 2007 to strengthen basic TB control, which is the best way to prevent strains of XDR-TB from developing.

“XDR-TB represents a major threat to the people of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr. Kim. “Our health care workers on the front lines of this co-epidemic must have the tools to treat XDR-TB and contain its further spread.”

In addition to the global need for basic TB control, WHO is calling for $650 million in immediate emergency funding to combat XDR-TB. However, this figure does not include some critical elements of effective control for drug-resistant TB, such as strengthening laboratory capacity. Recently, the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu sent an open letter to the U.S. Congress requesting $300 million in emergency funds to help fight XDR-TB in Africa.

“This new collaboration between Lesotho, Partners In Health and Open Society Institute is an important step in addressing XDR-TB and HIV/AIDS in southern Africa,” said Right Honorable Minister Dr. Mphu Ramatlapeng, Senator and Minister of Health and Social Welfare for Lesotho. “It is a positive development, and one that the international community must build on quickly.”

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