A cheap and widely available antibiotic pill halves the risk of people exposed to drug-resistant tuberculosis from contracting the particularly deadly strain of the disease, researchers announced on Thursday.
Every year an estimated 450,000 people contract multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), which front-line drugs no longer work against.
Only two in five people with MDR-TB had access to treatment last year, partly because the disease disproportionately affects people in developing countries.
However the commonly available antibiotic levofloxacin has been found to safely reduce the risk of children developing MDR-TB by 56 percent, according to new South Africa-based research presented at the Union World Conference on Lung Health in Paris.
Lead researcher Anneke Hesseling told AFP it was the first randomised, placebo-controlled trial – considered the gold standard – to look at whether a drug could prevent MDR-TB in children.
The pill could offer critical protection to children living in homes with a parent who has the disease, said Hesseling, a researcher at Stellenbosch University.
”When the kid has been exposed to MDR-TB, they’ve often seen people die – it’s been devastating in their family,” she added.
The results of another study presented at the conference, which has also not yet been peer-reviewed, found that levofloxacin prevented the drug-resistant strain in 45 percent of adults in Vietnam.
The two research teams joined forces, and a statistical approach called Bayesian analysis suggested that overall levofloxacin reduced the risk of MDR-TB by 60 percent for all ages.
The South Africa trial, which was partly funded by the international health agency Unitaid, followed 453 children exposed to an adult in their home with MDR-TB. Only five contracted the disease.
Unitaid chief Philippe Duneton called the research “a major advance that has the potential to protect millions of children from a debilitating illness”.
Levofloxacin has been available for decades and has been widely used to treat – rather than prevent – tuberculosis.
The preventative treatment involved taking a pill once a day for six months. Since the trial, a better tasting, more dissolvable, “kid-friendly” version of levofloxacin has been developed, Hesseling said.
The research was announced as the WHO is expected to update its guidelines for tuberculosis in the coming months.