Tuberculosis scare

Orly Mercado

Posted on June 5, 2007

In Fabie Street, behind the Paco railroad station in Manila, where I grew up, tuberculosis (TB) was not uncommon. The shanty next to ours was home to a family that was practically wiped out by TB. As a child, I remember running down the alley, holding my breath. The breadwinner of that family was a carpenter. He made coffins, and there was always one, he was working on. It was real scary stuff for a kid.

In the Philippines, the struggle to control TB has had its ups and downs. As an adult, I had shed those childhood fears. We are more experienced and knowledgeable now. This is not to say that there is little concern about new drug resistant strains of TB.

American mass media has been running stories about a young lawyer by the name of Andrew Speaker. He is now in isolation in the US, but only after creating quite a scare. He traveled to Europe for his wedding and honeymoon and returned via Prague and Canada in spite of having been diagnosed with a drug-resistant strain of TB. Speaker is at the center of a debate about a disease that has been with us for more than a century. I hear he has been receiving some nasty emails.

I think there are a few things we can be thankful for. I do not condone his actions, but he may have unwittingly done a good thing. His actions have now focused on some key issues. For several decades now the medicines to cure TB have hardly changed. The pharmaceutical industry has not produced new drugs for TB. It is not profitable to do so. TB has been a disease of the poor. Now that rich countries are no longer insulated from the dangers of communicable diseases like TB, we may see more enthusiasm and investment in research. We may not realistically expect the same passion they had in developing Viagra. But who knows, maybe after this incident, research for new TB drugs may be exciting again.

On a larger perspective, all these point to the need to address the issue of poverty. Even the development of new drugs will only be a temporary solution. The neighborhood I grew up in is now more crowded than ever. Holding one’s breath when near a tubercular person may not work

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