25 March 2013

South Africa: Quest for a TB Vaccine

It is shameful that a disease which is preventable and curable and has been around for so many years continues to kill over a million people each year, the world's foremost tuberculosis vaccine experts heard today.

Held for the first time in Africa, the world's top TB scientists will for the next three days meet at the University of Cape Town under the banner of the TB Vaccines Third Global Forum in their quest to develop the only tool that could have a sustainable impact on the TB epidemic - a vaccine.

"Modern TB vaccinology is about 10 years old, so it is very new and I believe we are now at a watershed moment," said Professor Willem Hanekom of the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative and one of the world's foremost scientists in the field.

Speaking at the opening plenary, Dr Lucia Ditiu of the World Health Organisation's Stop TB Partnership said it was naïve to think that the world could eliminate TB without a vaccine. "We need some great tools, a vaccine," she said.

She lauded health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi as "an inspiration, the best promoter and a great visionary".

South Africa is now the largest procurer of the Gene Xpert, a machine that is able to rapidly diagnose some forms of TB, including drug-resistant strains.

Health department Director General Precious Matsoso concurred "we have no option, but to find a vaccine".

She revealed that at Sunday's World TB Day events at Pollsmoor Prison they had screened 735 inmates for TB with 12% testing positive. Government has announced a renewed focus on TB in prisons, where in some overcrowded facilities TB infection is almost certain. Inmates will be screened for TB once they arrive and twice a year after that.

"If we don't deal with TB in prisons and people's homes we are sitting on a big time bomb," said Matsoso.

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