Kid-friendly TB medicine takes advice from Mary Poppins

(Disney)

Turns out Mary Poppins is right when it comes to designing better tuberculosis drugs for children. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

The TB Alliance announced that a child-focused TB drug will hit the market this year. It comes in smaller doses and is sweetened, making it safer and easier for children to to take.

“The availability of correctly dosed medications will improve treatment for children everywhere,” said Dr. Mel Spigelman, president and CEO of TB Alliance, a non-profit that partners with governments, NGOs and pharmaceutical companies to develop new TB drugs and reduce costs. “This is an important step toward ending the neglect that has characterized the care of children with TB for far too long.”

The drug will re-work an existing fixed-dose combination of rifampicin, isoniazid and pyrazinamide – the three most common treatments for drug-sensitive TB. Changes come in the form of making the tablets dissolvable, smaller and flavored. All act to improve drug adherence of young people with TB. It also makes it easier on parents. No longer will they have to cut up tablets to give their children; a practice that leads to imprecise doses.

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The TB Alliance and its partners are working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to roll out the drugs. Currently a dose combining all three drugs, and another using just rifampicin and isoniazid, are in the process of prequalification by the WHO. If all goes well, the drugs should be available in countries with high TB burdens in the next few months.

Some 9.6 million people fell ill with TB in 2014 and 1.5 million died as a result, says the WHO. Children alone represented 1 million cases and 140,000 deaths. Thanks to better testing and treatment, TB deaths are falling. The death rate fell by 47 percent between 1990 and 2015; totaling an estimated 43 million lives saved.

The emergence of drug-resistant TB is of particular concern. Nearly a half million people developed multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB) in 2014. It is the result of inappropriate treatment, bad TB drugs and improper adherence to treatment. Efforts are under way to develop new drugs that can tackle the forms of TB that are resistant to rifampicin and isoniazid, as are measures to eliminate counterfeits, diagnose more people and improve on existing treatments. The hope is that the new drugs will assist in reaching more children and preventing resistance.

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“If we are to end the TB epidemic by 2030, we must bring children with TB out of the shadows and ensure they are properly diagnosed, treated and cured,” said Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of the global TB program at WHO, speaking at the launch. “The new fixed-dose formulations for children will offer hope for the 400 children who needlessly die of TB each day. Urgent action is needed to ensure these medicines reach those in need and rapidly improve child survival from TB.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.