July 30, 2013 -- There's a crisis brewing in North Korea that has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or six-party talks. Tuberculosis has long been recognized as one of the biggest public health problems in North Korea, but there is a disturbing new development: much of the TB in North Korea is resistant to regular antibiotics.
Throughout the course of history, TB has killed more people than all other pandemics combined. The development of modern antibiotic therapy turned this feared plague into a treatable infectious disease. A six-month course of standard first-line TB drugs cures almost all patients with regular TB. But like any other infectious disease, TB can become resistant to antibiotics if not treated correctly. The most serious strains of drug-resistant TB, called "multidrug-resistant," or MDR-TB, don’t respond to treatment with first-line TB drugs. Treatment of MDR-TB relies on older and weaker drugs that are hundreds of times more expensive than regular TB drugs. Even in the U.S., a diagnosis of MDR-TB is very serious. A single patient may require medications costing thousands of dollars, months of hospitalization, and even surgery to cut out diseased lung.
For North Korean patients, MDR-TB is basically a death sentence.
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