TESTING TO FIGHT BUGS: The search for drugs that can fight the rise of superbugs is hampered by lack of research. Picture: THINKSTOCK

CAPE TOWN — The "post-antibiotic era" is no distant threat but already grim reality for diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), the director of the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) Thomas Frieden warned on Wednesday.

"SA has had some really tragic outbreaks (of drug-resistant TB). It really is a demonstration of the risks of antibiotic-resistance," said Dr Frieden.

The Atlanta-based CDC works closely with the US President’s Emergency Programme for Aids Relief (Pepfar), which has invested more than $4.2bn over the past decade in SA’s HIV and TB programmes.

SA has the world’s third-highest burden of TB, according to the World Health Organisation, and is grappling with a growing number of patients infected with strains of the disease that are virtually impossible to treat with current antibiotics.

SA made global headlines in 2006 when scientists reported that 53 patients in Tugela Ferry in KwaZulu-Natal had succumbed to extremely drug resistant (XDR) TB, all but one of whom died. XDR-TB is resistant to almost all known antibiotics, and growing numbers of cases have since been detected in all nine provinces.

"Antibiotics are a public good, a precious and limited resource, and we need to preserve them for our kids and our grand kids," said Dr Frieden in a telephone interview from the sidelines of a Pepfar meeting in Durban.

Preserving the life of antibiotics required rapid diagnosis and appropriate treatment, and identifying and containing disease outbreaks when they occurred, he said.