Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

South Africa’s Department of Health on Monday became the first in the world to announce a mass roll-out of a more tolerable drug to fight multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB).

Injectables currently used to treat TB are notorious for their harsh side effects.

The drug‚ bedaquiline‚ will replace existing treatment regimens for adolescents and adults from the start of their treatment.

Dr Norbert Njeka‚ a director at the health department‚ confirmed the plans.

Njeka said that those provinces not yet equipped for the roll-out "will be capacitated to do so". South Africa’s decision to be the first to ramp up the use of bedaquiline arose from "mass benefits of the new drug", he said.

Up until now the drug had been used in small pockets across the country‚ but the scale-up is likely to reduce the burden of the disease exponentially.

Each year‚ about half a million people contract MDR-TB across the world. South Africa carries a high burden of 19‚000 cases.

Doctors Without Borders released a statement saying that the organisation "applauds the South African National Department of Health" for being the "first country in the world to take this bold step aimed at scaling up access to an effective new drug‚ making MDR-TB treatment more tolerable‚ and reducing the devastating impact of side effects caused by the injectable agents".

Known side effects of the injectables currently used include kidney failure and hearing loss.

"Experience with bedaquiline in treating drug-resistant TB — mainly from South Africa — demonstrates improved clinical outcomes in people living with MDR-TB‚ and initial evidence shows that it can be safely and effectively used in place of the toxic injectable‚" said Dr Anja Reuter‚ of Doctors Without Borders‚ who is stationed in Khayelitsha where the organisation has run a TB treatment programme for 11 years.

She added: "There is no question we should be offering people the best options we have for more effective and less toxic treatment‚ but progress on this agenda has to date been slow in most countries."

She said South Africa was the first to take this "positive step" towards making sure nobody would be denied access to the most suitable drug.

In September this year‚ delegates from several countries will be meeting in New York for the first United Nations High-Level Meeting on TB.

Doctors Without Borders has called on South Africa to "send the highest level delegation possible‚ including the president‚ deputy president‚ minister of health‚ and civil society members" to encourage other countries to follow in the country’s footsteps.

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