VIDEO: Surviving TB and speaking out

WASHINGTON, DC—When Natalie Skipper got sick after spending time in South Africa, no one could figure out what was wrong.

Over the next year, she was diagnosed with—and treated for—several illnesses, including Chron’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia. At one point her doctor even told her they would need to remove her colon in order for her to recover. But all of these diagnoses were wrong.

Panels with titles like “HIV/TB collaborative activities,” and “cost-effective approaches to HIV and TB treatment” have speckled the schedule this week at AIDS 2012. That’s because worldwide, one in four AIDS deaths is caused by tuberculosis (TB). Spread through droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes, TB can be deadly. In fact, it’s the leading killer of people living with AIDS.

But TB isn’t always tied to HIV/AIDS. Only 12 percent of TB patients have HIV, which means that 88 percent do not, and Skipper, 34, is one of them.

In South Africa she spent five months working as a physical therapist, where several of her clients had TB. She contracted multiple-drug resistant TB (MDR TB). MDR TB means that the patient is resistant to two of the preferred drugs used to treat the disease, and Skipper was allergic to all four of the frontline drugs. Ultimately, she would be on treatment for two years—including three months of isolation—before she was cured. And she was lucky. According to the World Health Organization’s website, in 2010, 1.4 million people died from TB worldwide.

“I’m thankful to South Africa. It’s an honor to be able to be a voice for them, because there are so many that have passed away before me,” said Skipper.

Less than 7 percent of HIV-infected patients are screened for TB, according to the TB Alliance, and TB is given far less attention and resources than HIV/AIDS. Indeed, global spending on research and development for an HIV vaccine in 2010 reached $859 million, while only $78 million was dedicated to TB vaccine research, according to Aeras, a non-profit group that is developing TB vaccine candidates. The reason?

“In many parts of the world, TB is a problem of poverty,” said Daniel Everitt of the TB Alliance, another non-profit that is trying the novel approach of testing TB drug candidates in combination, in hopes of discovering a regimen that is simpler, more effective and cheaper. “There’s not much money in new drugs for TB. The last truly new TB drug was developed many, many years ago.”

Video: Natalie's Story

On Monday, though, a TB Alliance-financed project, published in the Lancet journal, found that a new drug combination regimen killed 99 percent of TB bacteria in two weeks of treatment. It raised hopes that this drug combination could reduce the amount of time needed to take TB drugs by up to two years for multiple-drug resistant TB patients.

While organizations like TB Alliance and Aeras are working with partners to find new TB treatments and vaccines, Skipper said she would like to see more resources and energy dedicated to TB. That’s why she speaks out.

“To treat HIV/AIDS, and not to treat TB would be only to put a Band-aid on the situation,” she said.

She knows first-hand that TB doesn’t abide by socioeconomic, racial, or cultural boundaries, or even by borders between countries.

“I am living proof that TB still exists,” she said. “And I too am living proof that what happens in South Africa, or any other country, does affect what happens in the United States. We cannot ignore a disease that is raging outside of our borders.”

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