A New Windsor-based relief organization is working to prevent a potential epidemic of tuberculosis in Iraq.
Interchurch Medical Assistance, a nonprofit association of 12 Protestant relief agencies, made $100,000 available to buy antibiotics to fight tuberculosis, a contagious disease that claims 3 million lives a year worldwide.
The medicine, which arrived in Iraq late last month, will allow about 6,000 tuberculosis patients to continue their treatment, until Aide Medicale Internationale, a relief organization that has worked in Iraq since 1981, can take over the distribution program, IMA officials said.
Curing tuberculosis involves a strict six-month maintenance program of daily medications. If patients interrupt that regimen, the country could see an increase in more virulent and resistant strains of the disease.
A risk for millions
"The antibiotics are already being delivered to various clinics," said Kevin King, material resources manager for the Mennonite Central Committee, a church group that supports Interchurch Medical Assistance. "This is a critical way to plug a leak. It is almost as though we are preventing a major forest fire. If nothing is done, 75 million people could be at risk.
"If you can catch this disease in its first phase, that's great. But if there is a gap in treatment, it will come back more powerful and take longer and cost more to treat."
The Mennonite Central Committee contributed $75,000 toward buying the medicine.
If left untreated, tuberculosis patients might infect more than 25 percent of the people with whom they came in contact, said IMA spokeswoman Vickie Johnson. "The maintenance program is critical to curing the disease," she said. "To give away all the ground that we have won from this disease would be tragic."
Concerned that the dwindling supply of drugs, particularly in the rural areas of Iraq, might cause a health crisis, IMA asked its church and corporate partners for help.
In addition to the Mennonite group, pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. donated $25,000. The effort is focused on the rural areas where the supplies were nearly depleted, Johnson said.
"TB is on the upswing because it is an opportunistic disease associated with AIDS and other immune-suppressing illnesses," said Don Padgett, IMA assistant vice president for pharmaceutical services. "The fear was many would simply stop their meds if it became too difficult to get them."
Tuberculosis, which spreads through the air when a patient sneezes or coughs, is considered among the most prevalent illnesses by the World Health Organization.
Number of cases down
About 20 years ago, tuberculosis afflicted nearly 20 percent of the Iraqi population. Treatment efforts by the country's Ministry of Health as well as the World Health Organization brought that figure to 2 percent, according to IMA statistics.
"The Iraqis established regional TB detection centers and the system worked," said King. "But, everything is different now. The Ministry of Health building in Baghdad is looted and burned out."
King, who recently returned from a week in Iraq, said relief groups are working hard to help restore Iraq's health system.
"The person with TB had no choice in the situation," King said. "It is incumbent on the world community to help him out."