RESILIENT TB STRAINS THRIVE IN KYRGYZSTAN  Unsound medication practices are 
creating increasingly incurable strains of tuberculosis, in a society 
ill-equipped to cope.  By Andreas Hedfors in Bishkek


TURKMEN FARM REFORMS FAILING  Government needs to launch comprehensive overhaul 
of agriculture if production is to be increased.  By Annadurdy Khadjiev in Varna


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Unsound medication practices are creating increasingly incurable strains of 
tuberculosis, in a society ill-equipped to cope.

By Andreas Hedfors in Bishkek

If you catch tuberculosis in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, the risk is higher 
than anywhere else in the world that it is a strain resistant to the best drugs 

The main sources of drug-resistant TB strains in the world – abbreviated 
therapy and insufficient medication – have become almost routine practice in 
the Kyrgyz healthcare system. The resulting hardier strains of TB become 
extremely difficult to treat and spread in the community.

“I am pretty much immune to all of the drugs I am taking now, except 
Kanamycin,” said Mikhail, 38, one of an estimated 1,300 to 3,500 people in 
Kyrgyzstan now suffering from drug-resistant or even multi-drug resistant 
(known as MDR) tuberculosis. 

After ten years of donor engagement, Kyrgyzstan is slowly getting the upper 
hand in the battle against the standard tuberculosis virus. These efforts have 
stabilised and brought down the annual incidence of new cases from 128 per 
100,000 people to 109 over a period of seven years. 

But according to the preliminary findings of a World Health Organisation, WHO, 
committee, 26 per cent of the new cases recorded in Bishkek in 2007 were 
resistant to at least the two most powerful TB drugs — Isoniazid and Rifampicin.

This statistic is the worst ever recorded for drug-resistant TB. A recent WHO 
report listed Azerbaijan's capital Baku and Moldova as having the highest 
incidence of MDR strains, at 22 and 19 per cent, respectively. Several 
countries were left out of the study due to lack of reliable data. 

What is more, the special drugs needed to treat MDR strains have always been 
absent or extremely scarce in Kyrgyzstan, due to the complexity and expense of 
the cure.

In the three-room flat he shares with his parents, Mikhail rummages through a 
plastic bag full of vials and pill boxes. He improvises his own treatment, with 
drugs he gets from contacts in Kazakhstan and Russia. 

The alternative is grim — without medication, half of tuberculosis sufferers 
will die within two years, experts say, and the chances are even worse for MDR 

However, do-it-yourself treatments also risk killing the patient, and can give 
the TB virus greater immunity. 

Every day, Mikhail takes four tablets of Pyrazinamide, one of five drugs that 
are routinely combined in a six-month therapy to treat ordinary TB. He also 
takes the antibiotics Kanamycin and Ofloxacin.

These are classed as “secondary” drugs, used when one or several of the 
standard substances are useless. But therapy with these less effective drugs 
may take 24, possibly up to 36 months, and it can also set off severe adverse 
effects requiring supervision and individual care. 

The subsidised world market price for a full standard course of treatment for 
drug-resistant strains is presently 4,600 US dollars compared with some 50 
dollars for the treatment of ordinary TB.

Certain drugs are inexpensive — Ofloxacin costs 600 soms or 15 dollars for a 
month-long supply — and available without prescription in Kyrgyz pharmacies, to 
people such as Mikhail.

”To be honest, I have lost confidence in the doctors. If I were to follow their 
advice, I would have been long gone. So I improvise a treatment according to 
what feels good for me,” he said.

But treating TB with too few medicines, or with types that are not effective 
against a particular strain, as Mikhail is doing, is precisely what breeds 
drug-resistant TB in the first place. The normal bacteria are killed while 
those which have accidentally mutated to a resistant form survive, multiply and 
become the dominant strain in the patient.

Doing this repeatedly can create further resistance to the point where no drugs 
are effective. A laboratory in Germany recently identified the first ever 
Kyrgyz case of this kind, defined as “XDR”.

XDR is increasingly feared in developed countries. While TB is a social disease 
which mainly threatens people with ailing immune systems in developing 
countries or among risk-groups, XDR TB can be impossible to treat wherever it 
is found.


It is not just patients who are creating ad hoc treatments and thereby 
unwittingly generating MDR strains. Not far from Mikhail’s home in a southern 
suburb of Bishkek, the country’s foremost TB experts have been doing much the 
same for years.

Kyrgyzstan’s National TB Centre consists of a cluster of pink stone buildings 
surrounded by a park. Here, Doctor Atyrkul Toktogonova is responsible for 
treating the country's MDR TB population.

It was not until November 2005 that she was given the range of medicines she 
needed, under a project funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis 
and Malaria, a part-public, part-private body. Even then, it was only a pilot 
project covering 100 patients, a number which doctor Toktogonova was able to 
stretch to 154.

With nothing left over for the thousands others needing help, she started 
treating them with whatever appropriate medicines she could find, hoping they 
might be enough for a cure or at least to prolong the patient’s life. 

”We are doctors and if a patient looks at us with hope and asks for help, well, 
we put in what we can,” she said, closing the door to her office. 

In the hallway outside, coughing men and women from all over the country were 
gathered in hope for treatment.

Outside the pilot project, she was only able to obtain two out of the four or 
five substances needed, and even these came in such small quantities that she 
could help only a few patients, 313 since 2004, and only for six months, 
instead of 24. The patients were encouraged to buy more medicines themselves to 
obtain the right combinations of drugs for the full period of treatment.

”Sure, we have violated the treatment principles a bit,” said Dr Toktogonova. 
“We know that to get good results, we should put in a minimum of four or five 
new substances. But for the sick, life is going by. And we have to save them.” 

Dr Toktogonova says some of the people she treated by this method are now 
cured, but she admits many will have developed further resistance and died.

>From a public health perspective, these ”budget” therapies are a catastrophe. 

Dominique Lafontaine, until recently in charge of a Doctors Without Borders, 
MSF, team working on the TB epidemic in Kyrgyzstan's prison system, 
acknowledges there is an ethical dilemma here, but insists nevertheless that 
improvised treatments are wrong.

”Don't start any antituberculosis programme, if you are not sure to do a good 
programme. You will select those [bacteria] which are resistant to these drugs, 
and then you will spread this strain in the community,” said Lafontaine.


The dangers were recognised in an order issued by Kyrgyzstan’s National TB 
Programme Director Aftandil Alisherov in May 2006, instructing doctors to 
refrain from "chaotic prescription and use of second-line TB drugs in the 
treatment of chronically ill TB patients”.

Alisherov is aware the treatment at the TB centre is wanting. arding 
responsible treatment.

"We give full treatment to only about 100 people. For some of the rest, we buy 
two or three substances from the budget. Those who wish buy other substances, 
for their own money…. And they write complaints to the ministry, and we have to 
explain that the state lacks the funds," he told IWPR.

Alisherov did not comment on how these practices fit with his own prohibition 
of such treatment, but he admitted they might violate the understanding the 
centre has with WHO regarding responsible treatment.

IWPR approached his second-in-command, Bakyt Myrzaliev, who said he was unaware 
of these "budget" therapies and said they would be unlawful.

"The purchase of second-line substances alongside official supply lines is 
forbidden,” he said.

Oskon Moldokulov, the WHO representative in Bishkek, said he had heard about 
the partial treatments, but that he “did not think it involved this many 
patients”. He promised to take a closer look at the situation and take it into 
account when future decisions were being made on WHO support.

“Such treatment is an enormous risk. You can create virtually incurable 
diseases,” he said.


In April or May, Kyrgyzstan is expecting the first major shipment of 
high-quality second-line drugs, enough for some 1,780 MDR TB patients over five 

"We are waiting, and the patients are too. As soon as these drugs arrive, we 
will be able to convert all insufficient therapies into adequate ones," said Dr 

Once these pharmaceuticals start arriving, they will theoretically wipe out the 
backlog of MDR TB patients as well as the new 560 cases believed to arise 

The challenge will be to ensure that the correct drugs are used properly. In 
the first two years of the MDR TB pilot project, only 60 per cent of patients 
actually completed the full length of treatment, Dr Toktogonova said.

One problem is the shortage of trained medical staff, as many leave the country 
in search of a better wage than the 90 dollars a month an experienced family 
doctor can expect to earn in Kyrgyzstan.

“There is a brain drain of TB personnel,” said Maxim Berdnikov of the 
International Committee of the Red Cross in Kyrgyzstan. “In Kazakhstan and 
Russia, the salaries are five to ten times higher. In some places in the south, 
there are no lab technicians left to diagnose the disease, and hospitals are 
running empty.”

Another obstacle will be patient motivation. Shamyrza Amankulov, a 52-year old 
resident of the Issyk-Kul region, has interrupted and resumed his treatment 
more times than doctors can count.

IWPR interviewed him in the MDR ward at the National TB Centre, where he had 
been transferred after many months of treatment. 

He believes he knows better than the doctors at times. “I have left treatments 
when I have thought they give me the wrong treatment. Last winter ,they gave me 
first-line medication for four months — that was completely wrong,” he said.

As for others who disrupted their treatment, he explained, “Maybe people don't 
understand fully that this is a serious disease. Some people say you get better 
if you eat dog or badger meat.” Amankulov tried such folk-medicine methods 
himself but admitted they did not help.

In early April, following this interview, Amankulov again broke off his 

Dr Toktogonova has had difficulty in making even the lucky few patients who 
were included in the pilot project stay on the treatment. 

During the interview, she received a phone call from a 22 year old man who 
wanted to come back after stopping his treatment just two months before full 

”His relatives didn't do anything about it and his district doctor had quit, so 
none could find him,” she said. ”His lungs are not yet destroyed. But he must 
begin the entire treatment again, and perhaps for 36 months instead of 24.” 

Toktogonova says TB can return and further resistance can develop when therapy 
is halted prematurely.

”It always comes back, of course — stronger and with resistance to second-line 
medicines. Then we have nothing left to treat with, and then the patients die,” 
she said.

She has launched a series of seminars to teach medical staff all over the 
country about the dangers of mistreatment.

“I am in a state of terror as I watch how our doctors prescribe substances and 
create XDR,” she says. 

The National TB Programme has recognised the danger of poor adherence to 
treatment and is scrambling to improve matters in time for the arrival of 
quality drugs. 

To minimise the number of drop-outs, Toktogonova said, treatment has been 
reformed into a four-stage model with six months each spent in intensive care, 
a rehabilitation home outside the city, an open ward near Lake Issyk-Kul and 
finally treatment at home. 

"This has already brought the number of therapy violations down from some 24 
every month to a mere four," she says, commenting on the reform’s impact on the 
existing MDR pilot project.

Other measures may include food packages for TB patients and better pay for 
doctors. The National TB Programme headed by Alisherov has applied to the 
Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for 40 million dollars, 
half of it to pay for food packages that would be distributed to patients every 
day they show up for their medication, and the rest to go on raising health 
service salaries. 

If approved, the money will not arrive until the summer of 2009.

Despite all the investment and effort, Alisherov says only rising living 
standards in Kyrgyzstan will ultimately decide the battle against the TB 

”If the economy stays at this level, we won't beat TB. I say this openly. It 
will remain where it is now. Perhaps the numbers will go down a little, but it 
will remain,” Alisherov concludes.

Andreas Hedfors is a freelance journalist in Bishkek.



Government needs to launch comprehensive overhaul of agriculture if production 
is to be increased.

By Annadurdy Khadjiev in Varna

A year after President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power, his pledges to 
reform agriculture have yet to make much of an impact. If things are really to 
change, he needs to stop focusing on grain production and develop a more 
diversified and efficient farming sector that is better suited to conditions 
and food needs in Turkmenistan. 

At a cabinet meeting on March 12, President Berdymuhammedov took agriculture 
sector chiefs to task, saying that spring sowing was behind schedule and arable 
land was in poor shape, with drainage systems collapsing and high levels of 
salt in the soil.

The president told his officials needed to make “fundamental changes” to the 
way food was produced in Turkmenistan.

His damning statements come a year after he announced large-scale reforms of 
farming. A strategic programme approved at the end of March by the Halk 
Maslahaty – the supreme legislative body in Turkmenistan – set out steps 
towards making better use of the land and the water that irrigates it. Two 
other laws approved at the same time were designed to improve the lot of 
small-scale private farmers. 

Analysts suggest attempts to reform the sector have failed, for the moment at 

It is of course early days for Berdymuhammedov, who inherited a failing economy 
in which – under his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov, who died in Decembe 2007 – 
erratic policy decisions and neglect of the infrastructure led to chronically 
poor performance, covered up by officials who routinely misstated production 

Seventeen years after independence, Turkmenistan is largely dependent on food 
imports. According to local observers, more than half of all the foodstuffs 
consumed on the local market have come from other countries. Grain and flour, 
together with meat, vegetable oil, fish, rice, and dry milk are purchased from 
Kazakstan, Russia, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

Turkmenistan is a largely desert country with only limited access to 
irrigation, and much of its arable land is given over to the export cash crop 
cotton. Wheat is also an important crop, but not enough is grown to meet local 
demand. Last year’s harvest was put at 1.2 million tons by the official 
statistics, or closer to one million according to independent estimates, far 
less than annual domestic consumption which a United States Agriculture 
Department study dating from 2005 calculated at almost 2.5 million tons.

As well as the scarcity of water, experts say this shortfall is due in part to 
the low level of technology available to Turkmen farmers. Yields of about 1.5 
tons per hectare compare badly with neighbouring Kazakstan, where productivity 
can reach 4.5 tons per hectare, making it the main grain exporter in the 
region. Furthermore, the Kazak figure is for wheat for human consumption, 
whereas in Turkmenistan 55 to 60 per cent of output goes for animal fodder.

Before Niazov died, he ordered a 300,000 to 400,000 ton production increase 
every year, in an effort to reach an ultimate target of four million tons. For 
the moment at least, the authorities appear to be pressing ahead with this 
strategy of driving up grain production to the point where the country is 
self-sufficient, and have set a target of 1.8 million tons this year. 

This is unlikely to happen, since none of the underlying conditions have 
changed, and the starting point is not based on accurate figures. In 2006, 
government inspectors found that farmers were planting less than half of the 
planned area with wheat, and some regional governors who were found to be 
exaggerating output figures were sacked and arrested. Berdymuhammedov has 
declared war on the practice of reporting fictitious output results.

It is worth asking whether Turkmenistan actually needs to grow this much grain.

Since gas and cotton are major revenue earners, the country should be in a 
position to buy the grain it needs rather than placing a huge strain on its 
limited land resources and poor infrastructure.

It might make more sense to grow enough cereals to cover local demand for 
animal feed, and diversify agriculture to produce fresh fruit and vegetables 
for the local market, as well as building up the livestock sector, a 
traditional strength of this once nomadic nation.

The country could also make tinned foods, wine and other processed items if it 
invested in industrial production.

It would not be difficult, with private-sector funding, to build poultry and 
fish farms, hothouse plantations and small-scale processing factories all 
around the country. 

The structure of agriculture must also be addressed – new laws are needed to 
encourage farmers and food producers, together with better access to loans and 
preferential tax rates and import/export tariffs. The procedure for registering 
new agricultural firms also needs to be simplified. 

Finally, the government must also end the Soviet-style “state order” which 
tells farmer what to grow and fixes artificially low purchase prices.

If all this was done and the sector was managed properly, Turkmenistan would 
gradually move to a position where it not only produced much of its own food, 
but was also an exporter, thereby recouping the money it has to spend on items 
that are better imported, like grain and sugar. 

Turkmenistan may never become self-sufficient in food, but then there are very 
few countries that are. Russia, for example, buys 45 per cent of the pork it 
consumes from Europe, 60 per cent of its poultry from the United States and 
almost 40 per cent of its rice from Thailand.

Annadurdy Khadjiev is an economist based in Varna, Bulgaria.

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