Scientists meet at Keystone to stem spread of TB |

Scientists meet at Keystone to stem spread of TB

Robert Allen
Keystone, CO Colorado

KEYSTONE, Colorado ” The increasing number of tuberculosis strains resistant to multiple drugs are a growing concern to scientists worldwide, many of whom converged in Keystone this week for the world’s primary conference on the disease.

In Ethiopia, an elementary-school teacher has been working more than three years despite an infection of drug-resistant TB because the prohibitively expensive treatment is beyond her reach.

“She’s coughing every day, but she’s still teaching,” said Mulualem Agonafir Gadena, a researcher and technical coordinator from Ethiopia. “Imagine the children.”

The often-fatal disease is spread through coughing.

Gadena said that for many years, doctors throughout Africa have been concerned with HIV ” the virus that causes AIDS ” but emphasis on tuberculosis lately has increased as well.

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TB has the highest morbidity rate in Ethiopia and is the third most-common cause for hospitalization ” behind childbirth and malaria.

This year’s conference is the seventh in the Keystone Symposia TB series, which began in 1995 in Durango. Some 635 participants from 41 countries participated.

The Keystone Symposia Global Health Series is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Resources from the World Health Organization’s Directly Observed Therapy and the Jolie-Pitt Foundation have helped with fighting the disease in Ethiopia.

However, treatment and diagnosis of TB resistant to multiple drugs remain a tough challenge. About 50 to 60 percent of these patients die, even with the drugs.

The method for diagnosis by microscope requires a committed expert, Gadena said. As a result, one definitive way to test for TB ” studying a smear of sputum ” is only 27 percent accurate in Ethiopia, compared with a rate of 88 percent in the United States, according to WHO.

Gadena, 29, works at the National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory at the Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Institute in the nation’s capitol, Addis Ababa.

It’s presently the country’s only facility able to diagnose TB resistant to multiple drugs, though four more such facilities are needed.

Gadena said his trip to the four-day Keystone Symposia conference is “a dream come true.” He hopes the networking opportunities lead to more support in the TB fight in his Third-World country.

In 2006, some 67,545 Ethiopians died of TB; by comparison, in the United States only 1,310 people died of TB.

Dr. Elmer Koneman, a local retired pathologist, said the daily, six-month medicine regimen is often left incomplete as patients begin to feel better. This has allowed the disease to mutate and “put on an armor.”

About 25 percent of all TB strains aren’t treatable, he said.

TB symptoms include fever, night sweats and a cough which progresses in mucus production and can include blood.

Gadena had an aunt who was misdiagnosed and ultimately died of TB.

His own mother got sick when he was a post-graduate student.

“So finally, she didn’t make it, and she was no more,” he said. “It was a sad story, you know.”

Last November, Gadena won the Tore Godal prize ” an award from an institute in Norway that is given for research ” in part for his work on researching TB in Ethiopia.

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