Fearing that the global economic crisis could cause nations to renege on commitments to fight tuberculosis, new Nobel laureate and HIV co-discoverer Francoise Barre-Sinoussi warned that a drop in TB funding could wipe out gains made against AIDS because so many people suffer from both diseases.
"We are at the period of success with antiretroviral treatment" for HIV, Barre-Sinoussi said Tuesday during a teleconference from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. "But we have an epidemic of multi-resistance to tuberculosis treatment, which is really alarming."
An estimated 33 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. About 11 million of them also have tuberculosis, Barre-Sinoussi said. By suppressing the immune system, HIV leaves people susceptible to other infections, including TB.
"In the parts of the world where there is the most HIV, TB is what kills most patients," said Dr. Richard Chaisson, director of tuberculosis research at Johns Hopkins University and an international consortium to fight AIDS and tuberculosis.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV infects more than 22 million people, TB incidence has quadrupled in the last 15 years, Chaisson said.
Nonresistant TB is curable, but the majority of Africans are not getting antibiotics, according to the World Health Organization. And a dangerous form of the disease, multidrug- resistant TB, now accounts for 5% of all new TB cases worldwide, and 15% to 22% of new cases in parts of the former Soviet Union and China.
Even the drug-resistant strain is treatable with the right antibiotics. But for a rarer and even more dangerous strain known as extensively drug-resistant TB, half of those treated don't survive, Chaisson said.
International funding is used to provide treatment in poor countries as well as for research on new antibiotics.
What concerns Barre-Sinoussi is that neither HIV nor TB was discussed at the summit of the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations in Japan in July. And that was before the economic situation worsened in recent weeks.
"We are even more worried than before," she said.
Barre-Sinoussi and colleague Luc Montagnier were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine last week for their work in the early 1980s identifying the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
They shared the prize with German scientist Harald zur Hausen, who showed that human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer.