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U.K.: Researchers Announce Breakthrough In Tuberculosis Prevention

British medical researchers have developed a new powerful vaccine against tuberculosis. It's the first new T-B vaccine in 80 years and is believed to be up to 30 times more effective than the old, globally used vaccine. The vaccine is still in the trial phase and won't come onto the market several years. Nevertheless, it's good news to populations at risk in Africa and Central Asia.

London, 1 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Once thought to be on the way out, tuberculosis is becoming more deadly again.

New strains have appeared, and the vaccine known as B-C-G that has been used for years is not always effective.

In fact, some 2 million people around the world die from tuberculosis or its symptoms every year. Most of those are in relatively poor areas of Africa, Asia, and Central Asia.

Now, British medical researchers at Oxford University report they've developed a new vaccine. Dr. Helen McShane is the leader of the team.

"The old B-C-G [vaccine] is given at birth throughout the developing world, and it does protect to certain extent against T-B meningitis in children," McShane said. "But what it doesn't do is protect against lung disease in either children or adults. We've designed a vaccine that we believe boosts the effects of B-C-G."

A three-year trial on a group of 42 healthy volunteers has shown already that it increases immunity to tuberculosis by as much as 30 times if combined with B-C-G.

Medical experts have welcomed the findings, but say the vaccine still has some way to go before it completes all the required trials.

Paul Sommerfeld is the chairman of the British charity, "T-B Alert," in London.

"It's an encouraging development on a long road," Sommerfeld said. "We're still a very long way from an actual working vaccine, which can be used in a major way with many, many people. That will require lot more stages of development and trials."

Following the success of trials in the UK, a new round of international trials is under way in the west African country of Gambia. McShane said she is looking forward to a so-called "efficacy trial" in South Africa in a year's time.

"The 'efficacy trial' is seeing if the vaccine really works to prevent people getting T-B," McShane said. "And that has to be done in South Africa, because you have to do that in an area of the world where there is a lot of T-B. And there is more T-B in South Africa than almost anywhere else in the world."

McShane said that with the efficacy trial completed, her team would aim at getting a license for the vaccine in 2009. That sounds like years away, but she said that her team, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, has in fact progressed swiftly.

"In terms of vaccines, that is a very, very short time frame," McShane said. "If we start the efficacy trial in 2006, it takes two years to follow up people to see whether the vaccine really does stop you from getting T-B or not. That's a function of the disease, really."

McShane said she believes the trial will show the new vaccine to be as effective as preliminary trials have indicated. And that the world should relatively soon start benefiting.

Sommerfeld said the problem in many countries is that infected people are not aware of the fact that tuberculosis -- even now -- can be effectively treated if identified in time.

"[The] crucial issue at the moment is that -- irrespective of a vaccine - we do know how to cure tuberculosis," Sommerfeld said. "So if anybody thinks they have tuberculosis, they should make sure that they're tested by their doctor, and that they get decent treatment. But in countries around the world, governments should continue to put their effort into effective expansion of use of the known good regiment for tuberculosis, that is promoted by the World Health Organization."