What is multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and how do we control it?

Online Q&A
Updated October 2015

Q: What is multidrug-resistant TB and how do we control it?

A: The bacteria that cause TB can develop resistance to the antimicrobial drugs used to cure the disease. Multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) is TB that does not respond to at least isoniazid and rifampicin, the two most powerful anti-TB drugs.

The reasons why multidrug resistance continues to emerge and spread are mismanagement of TB treatment and person-to-person transmission. Most people with TB are cured by a strictly followed, six-month drug regimen that is provided to patients with support and supervision. Inappropriate or incorrect use of antimicrobial drugs, or use of ineffective formulations of drugs (e.g. use of single drugs, poor quality medicines or bad storage conditions), and premature treatment interruption can cause drug resistance, which can then be transmitted, especially in crowded settings such as prisons and hospitals.

In some countries, it is becoming increasingly difficult to treat MDR-TB. Treatment options are limited and expensive, recommended medicines are not always available, and patients experience many adverse effects from the drugs. In some cases even more severe drug-resistant TB may develop. Extensively drug-resistant TB, XDR-TB, is a form of multidrug-resistant TB with additional resistance to more anti-TB drugs that therefore responds to even fewer available medicines. It has been reported in 105 countries worldwide.

Drug resistance can be detected using special laboratory tests which test the bacteria for sensitivity to the drugs or detect resistance patterns. These tests can be molecular in type (eg, Xpert MTB/RIF) or else culture-based. Molecular techniques can provide results within hours and have been successfully implemented even in low resource settings.

Solutions to control drug-resistant TB are to:

  • cure the TB patient the first time around;
  • provide access to diagnosis;
  • ensure adequate infection control in facilities where patients are treated;
  • ensure the appropriate use of recommended second-line drugs.

In 2014, an estimated 480 000 people worldwide developed MDR-TB. It is estimated that about 9.7% of these cases were XDR-TB.