Fighting Tuberculosis, From Terezin to Today

Opinion

By Inge Auerbacher

Published June 03, 2009, issue of June 12, 2009.
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Tuberculosis should not be a death sentence in 2009. It wasn’t for me nearly 70 years ago after I contracted the disease in the Terezin concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia.

But today, nearly 2 million people die from TB each year, an unconscionable number of lives lost to a preventable, curable disease.

I was diagnosed with TB when I was 11 years old. I had just immigrated to the United States with my parents, one year after being liberated from Terezin in 1945. In my case, the disease had been fueled by malnutrition and other horrid conditions I endured at Terezin.

I was hospitalized for two years starting in 1946, but it was not until 1949 that I was treated with streptomycin, the first antibiotic developed to treat TB. I had another bout of TB in 1953 and was finally fully cured a year later.

Streptomycin and other TB drugs allowed me to live a full life — to go to college and become a chemist, an author and an activist. One of the highlights of my life was learning and writing about Dr. Albert Schatz, the man who co-discovered streptomycin and who, by extension, helped save my life.

Others should have the same chance at life that Dr. Schatz gave me. Unfortunately, tuberculosis today is often a neglected disease, thought of by many Americans as a scourge of the past.

That is a dangerous myth. The bacterium that causes TB is present in an estimated one-third of the world’s population. The disease can spread quickly and easily when a person with an active infection coughs or sneezes. And now, new strains of drug-resistant TB are on the rise across the globe.

These virulent new TB bugs are incredibly difficult to cure. The drugs that helped stamp out my TB in the 1950s are often ineffective against these new strains, and the standard regimen to treat TB relies on medications that are 40 years old. The most common test used to diagnose TB is more than 100 years old, and it cannot distinguish between drug-susceptible and drug-resistant TB.

In many parts of the developing world, TB is essentially a death sentence. It is the No. 1 killer of women of childbearing age worldwide.

We need strong American leadership to battle this deadly disease. President Obama should commit the United States to contributing $2.7 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, the largest funder of TB programs in developing countries. Facing a $5 billion donation gap, the Global Fund has slated deep cuts for TB programs across the globe, a move that could reverse vital gains in treating and preventing the disease.

In Congress, lawmakers should work to quadruple the amount America spends on our vastly underfunded global TB programs. And they should dramatically scale up funding for research on new TB drugs, new diagnostics and a more effective vaccine.

There are leading American doctors and scientists — today’s Albert Schatzes — who, given more funding and support, will make new discoveries to cure the millions of people suffering needlessly from this disease.

Inge Auerbacher is the co-author of “Finding Dr. Schatz: The Discovery of Streptomycin and a Life It Saved” (iUniverse, 2006).


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