6 December 2017

East Africa: Drug Resistance a Pain in the Region

Bacterial diseases are increasingly becoming resistant to medication, health experts warn, a situation that is worsened in Africa by weak diagnostic systems and unregulated use of antibiotics.

Studies in East Africa have shown high resistance by e.coli, salmonella, staphylococci and others that cause diarrhoeal diseases in East Africa.

A World Bank study of laboratory capacities in Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda found that salmonella was highly resistant to common antibiotics. In Tanzania, the resistance was as much as 100 per cent.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Health also said that 8.5 per cent cases of tuberculosis are resistant to drugs that were once potent enough to cure the disease while 1 per cent of the new cases are multiple drug resistant.

Running out of options

Prof Sam Kariuki, an expert in antimicrobial resistance and head of the Centre for Microbiology Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, said: "We are running out of options to treat these infections."

Dr Marc Sprenger, director of the World Health Organisation Secretariat for Antimicrobial Resistance told The EastAfrican that drug resistance is not just an African problem.

"We estimate that about 25,000 people die each year in the US and Europe because of resistant bacteria, and the figure could be much higher in other parts of the world; we just lack the data. The challenges in Africa and other parts of the developing world is that they have a high burden of infectious disease and poorly resourced, fragile health systems," he said.

A survey in Kenya's Kilifi County in 2016 showed that staphylococcus aureus, which causes pneumonia, meningitis and boils, was 92 per cent resistant to Penicillin and Erythromycin.

And this year in July, health officials and researchers in the country raised the alarm over a cholera strain that had "acquired resistant characteristics, an extended-spectrum beta-lactamases (ESBL), which makes it break down stronger antibiotics and therefore more difficult to treat."

The pace at which pathogens are becoming resistant is indirectly proportional to the rate at which the pharmaceutical world is developing new medication for bacterial diseases.

The first antibiotic, Penicillin, was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 and more than 100 compounds have been found since, but no new class has been found since 1987.

Now, Teixobactin, the first new antibiotic to be discovered in nearly 30 years, has been hailed as a "paradigm shift" in the fight against the growing resistance to drugs.

Teixobactin, discovered in 2015, has been found to treat many common bacterial infections. But it may not be available in East Africa in 10 years.

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