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WHO Says Drug-Resistant TB a Huge Threat

Tuberculosis patients in parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are 10 times more likely to have multidrug-resistant TB than in the rest of the world, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released yesterday.

China was also identified in the report as one of the key areas for the deadly infectious disease.

The report, which surveys 77 countries and covers one-fifth of the world's population, includes four locations in China.

Two of the four provinces surveyed were found to have a "very high" percentage of multidrug-resistant TB patients, said the report's lead author Dr. Mohamed Aziz.

Around one out of every 10 new patients tested positive for multidrug-resistant TB in northeast China's Liaoning Province, and eight in every 100 new patients in central China's Henan Province are resistant to more than two important TB drugs.

But the situation is better in central China's Hubei Province and Hong Kong, said Aziz in a telephone interview with China Daily.

Only 0.8 percent of TB patients are drug resistant in Hong Kong, a percentage point lower than average, and 2.1 percent are drug resistant in Hubei, which shows the situation is "within control," said Aziz.

Multidrug-resistant TB is fatal in more cases because it is harder to cure. Patients infected with this strain must take second-line drugs that are much more expensive and carry more side effects. Longer treatments are also required.

Once TB patients develop a drug-resistant strain of the illness owing to inconsistent treatment, wrong treatment regimens or unreliable drug supply, they can spread it to others, said Aziz.

The WHO reports that tuberculosis kills approximately 2 million people each year. The breakdown in health services, the spread of HIV/AIDS and the emergence of multidrug-resistant TB are contributing to the worsening impact of this disease.

It is estimated that between 2002 and 2020, approximately 1 billion people will be infected, over 150 million people will get sick and 36 million will die of TB if controls are not strengthened.

Aziz stated that it is in the interest of every country to support a rapid increase in TB control.

"Passport control will not halt drug resistance; investment in global TB prevention will," said Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of the WHO's Stop TB Department.

Aziz indicated that China is doing well in expanding its surveillance of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

Now China's health administration and the WHO are planning to carry out a joint national TB project.

A WHO expert said surveys will be carried out in more provinces, and multidrug-resistant TB patients found in new surveys will be offered treatment with second-line drugs. However, he added that it has not yet been decided who will pay for the treatment.

Thanks to the WHO's initiatives, the cost of supplying these medicines has fallen dramatically as pharmaceutical companies have agreed to support fully the fight to eradicate drug-resistant TB.

(China Daily March 17, 2004)

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