It all starts with a cough. A woman covers her mouth and then shakes hands with a man next to her on a plane. He infects 10 others. Everyone gets horribly sick. They are given medicine but it has no effect. Three of them die.
No, this isn't a scene from the No. 1 box office hit Contagion - its real life. It's the story of multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB).
Since it was first discovered in 1994, 114 countries have reported outbreaks of MDR-TB, a deadly form of tuberculosis that is resistant to first line medication. Its cause? Poor treatment of regular tuberculosis.
The big risk for catching TB? Breathing. In the past 10 years an estimated five million people became sick with MDR-TB and 1.5 million have died. These numbers are truly frightening. The scariest part of all?
Only 1% had access to treatment.
We have the second line drugs needed for treatment -- what is lacking is resources and the political will to make them available to stop this global killer. According to the Stop TB Partnership's Global Plan to Stop TB 2006-2015, 1.3 million MDR-TB cases need to be treated in 27 high TB burden countries by 2015.
Estimated cost = $16.2 billion. So far, only $0.4 billion has been mobilized.
If $16.2 billion seems like an outrageous price tag - consider $3.4 trillion - the estimated economic burden of TB in only 22 of the high TB burden countries by the year 2015. The countries hardest hit by MDR-TB are also two of the world's biggest trading partners -- India and China.
MDR-TB moves slower than Hollywood. But the costs, in lives and resources of TB and MDR-TB, are far greater than even Steven Soderbergh could imagine. In fact just this week, the World Health Organization announced that lethal strains of extensively drug-resistant, airborne tuberculosis are spreading across Europe and will kill thousands unless halted. Yet basic global health infrastructure is on the chopping block around the world. As the U.S. Congress debates funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and other global health needs, it should ensure the U.S. fully contributes its fair share. The alternative could prove scarier than fiction.
It is heartening, despite its gruesomeness, to see a movie on global public health reach number one at the box office. Scaling up on the global TB epidemic requires serious focused international economic and political leadership and commitment at the highest levels. At the moment, the global community is still hiring for this leadership position. Let's hope we fill it before the sequel comes out.
More at www.action.org