United Nations High-Level Meeting on Tuberculosis: Importance of drug quality

At the end of next month, the inaugural United Nations (UN) High-Level meeting on Tuberculosis (TB) will take place in New York to discuss the future of the bout against the devastating yet elusive disease. As TB remains the largest infectious disease torturer in today’s society taking the lives of 4500 humans each day, the theme of this occurrence is “United to end Tuberculosis: an urgent global response to a global panic”. This unparalleled step undertaken by governments throughout the world along with those allies engaged in ending Tuberculosis will address an assortment of issues at this meeting. Although the exact agenda has yet to be revealed, the resolution to host this single day meeting mentioned the following items could be discussed:

  • Adequate funding for novel diagnostic testing, medications, and vaccinations
  • Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB)
  • Responsibility for multisectoral collaboration within nation states, regions, and the globe
  • Universal health care coverage and ensuring tuberculosis coverage is included

Each of these items – ranging from the use of prophylactic low dose isoniazid therapy to equal distribution of the recently designed TB diagnostic test Xpert MTB/RIF – are crucial in accomplishing the END TB strategy laid out by the World Health Organization. However, after looking over these action items for the meeting, Tuberculosis drug quality seems to absent.

As health care professionals across the globe continue to treat TB on a patient specific basis, certain untreated cases occur that puzzle even those who have treated the disease for years. The reasoning behind treatment failure? Adherence to medication or drug resistance are often the first assumed thoughts those sharing their patient’s fate may have. Yet, the actual medicine with its various active and inactive ingredients is often not called into question.

Towards the end of last year, the World Health Organization released an alarming figure concerning drug quality in low to middle income countries. In the report released to the public, WHO stated that approximately 10% of medications are counterfeit in these areas of the world – which happen to be the areas where Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases take their largest toll. In addition, WHO added that this percentage is most likely only a small part of the number of humans truly affected by counterfeit medications. To provide clarification, WHO considers counterfeit medications to be unapproved by regulators, unable to meet quality standards, or purposefully misrepresented active or inactive ingredients in the medication. In addition to this report by WHO, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a report outlining in 2015 that 9% to 41% of anti-tuberculosis and other infectious disease medications failed to meet the standards sought in specific studies.

It is vital for the global health community to obtain an effective vaccine to prevent pulmonary tuberculosis, to have a rapid yet specific TB diagnostic test, to create a strategy for various sectors of a nation state to work together in ending TB, and novel agents to treat the most severe cases of MDR-TB. Individuals in rural Kampot, Cambodia, inmates in the Russian prison system, or those residing in the slums of Bangalore, India often can be restored to health through the means that have been available for the last half a century. The RIPE (rifampin, isoniazid, pyrazinamide, and ethambutol) regime has proven its success in treating non-resistant tuberculosis – so long as each of the medications are of appropriate quality. However, The Lancet released a report in January 2017 that found that 8.9% of Indian rifampicin products were of inadequate quality in a country that is burdened with the highest prevalence of tuberculosis across the globe. Moreover, WHO revealed that 28.3% of rifampicin containing medications found in the Russian Federation in 2011 failed to meet predetermined specifications for proper quality – a country known to have one of the highest MDR-TB burdens in the world. With the aforementioned statistics released by the WHO, The Lancet, and NIH, a renewed emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring the quality of each and every tuberculosis medication that reaches a human being. The possibility of one in ten (or more) TB medications being counterfeit will continue to lead to failed treatment regimes, inappropriate use of resources, and spread of MDR-TB even if innovative technology is developed.

In order to combat counterfeit medications on a global level, the World Health Organization developed a reporting system for the interconnectedness of the medication market. The Global Surveillance and Reporting System (GSRS), that all WHO members are eligible to contribute to, aims at collecting data on falsified medications, vaccines and other medical equipment to address real-time situations and prevent further harm. With this reporting arrangement in place, the WHO has reacted and thwarted mortality and morbidity associated with counterfeit medications – including the contaminated cough medication supply that led to 60 deaths in Pakistan and a number of individuals treated with an antidote in Paraguay in 2013. On top of the GSRS, WHO has implemented Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) that each manufacturer should achieve in order to be certified by WHO; thus, providing a reliable source of medications that nation states can purchase from. Although these initiatives have brought about encouraging results along with halting global medication emergencies, there are still barriers that accompany these programs. The technical training, technology, and adequate staffing to properly identify and report through the GSRS is often difficult to obtain in the developing world while GMPs are often misapplied and have inadequate supervision. The root cause is the long-term development of countries’ public health systems – of which continuing problems with counterfeit medications remains deficiently addressed. A county’s public health care system is the vital organ to ensuring quality medications through these mechanisms that WHO has created and employed. An underutilized and under resourced public health care system leads a budding yet unregulated private market – unable to ensure proper treatment for those seeking it.

Since the United Nations declared this a high-level meeting, meaning all heads of member states are encouraged to participate in the highest level possible, this venue provides the ideal opportunity to recommit to guaranteeing TB drug quality. The sustained empowerment of the public health care systems for those countries tirelessly battling tuberculosis will be a step forward into truly ending this devastating disease. Each health care professional spanning the globe has a responsibility to accompany these governments, colleagues, and fellow humans by investing their time, resources, and talents to develop procedures and systems to ensure effective drug quality.

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