NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya has become the first country in the world to introduce child-friendly drugs to fight tuberculosis (TB). These drugs — launched with the non-profit TB Alliance — will revolutionize the treatment of tuberculosis in Kenya and dramatically improve survival rates.
“Each year, 1 million children get sick with TB, and 140,000 needlessly die,” according to the TB Alliance website. These numbers are far too high for a disease that is both preventable and treatable at a fairly low-cost.
In most regions of the world today, tuberculosis treatment for children is inexact and unpleasant. Parents and healthcare workers have to crush the bitter-tasting, adult-sized pills, approximate the dosage and attempt to hide the resultant powder in the child’s food or water. This process leaves a large amount of room for error.
Oftentimes, this imprecision leads to treatment failure. TB medication is nearly ineffective if the treatment is either below the recommended dosage or if the regimen is interrupted. The longer the child is sick, the higher the likelihood is that the tuberculosis bacteria will become drug-resistant.
If the tuberculosis bacteria becomes multi-drug resistant, or MDR, then new medication is required. The drugs for MDR-TB require a longer regimen, more pills and injections, are more expensive and have more severe side effects, including potential deafness.
TB Alliance has set out to transform this grim reality of childhood tuberculosis. TB Alliance is a global non-profit that develops and tests new medication, with the aim to eliminate TB for the next generation.
The treatment developed by TB Alliance is a fixed combination of the three most commonly used anti-TB drugs, in the World Health Organization-recommended dosage for children. The medication comes in convenient tablets, which dissolve in water within 12 seconds. To top it off, the drugs even taste good, coming in a palatable strawberry flavor.
These tablets could be the answer for drug-susceptible childhood tuberculosis. By launching the drugs nationwide, Kenya is leading the entire world. Nearly 20 countries are expected to follow soon after.
Africa has the highest prevalence of TB of any continent. Kenya alone recorded 7,000 cases of TB in infants and children last year. Already, the government allocates about KES Sh2 billion for the treatment of tuberculosis in Kenya, which equates to about USD $20 million.
Tuberculosis spreads through airborne bacteria. In areas that are crowded, condensed and poorly ventilated, transmission rates are much higher. Due to these factors, the slums of Nairobi, understandably, have some of the highest incidence rates of tuberculosis in Kenya.
Kenya began to introduce the drugs on October 1, releasing them for free in every healthcare facility nationwide. With this decision, the Kenyan Ministry of Health has reiterated its commitment to ensuring treatment access for all.
Despite these large-scale efforts, however, some economic barriers remain. The first step to the diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis is a chest X-ray, yet many children do not have the means to afford this crucial component. Many remain undiagnosed.
Continued governmental outreach, however, will reshape Kenya’s interaction with TB. Already, the drugs will immensely raise childhood survival rates. Simply, the drugs are easy, accurate and completely child-friendly. Internationally, governments need to recognize the importance of the inclusion of childhood tuberculosis in maternal and childhood health initiatives.
Since 1990, tuberculosis death rates have nearly been reduced by half, according to the World Health Organization. Tackling tuberculosis in Kenya is just the beginning. Tuberculosis is curable, and with continued efforts on behalf of researchers, governments, non-profits and medical professionals, the next generation could grow up TB-free.
– Larkin Smith