China's Ministry of Health announced on Wednesday, the day before World TB Day, that about 550,000 people with infectious pulmonary tuberculosis were treated free of charge by the government in 2004.
"If one infectious pulmonary TB patient infects 10 to 15 healthy people, free treatment kept six million Chinese safe from TB last year," said Qi Xiaoqiu, director-general of the health ministry's disease control department.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported last July that each year China has 1.4 million new tuberculosis cases, second only to India in the number of new cases, and 650,000 of which are highly infectious.
China estimates that there are about 4.5 million sufferers in the country, but according to the WHO the detection rate, while markedly improved, is still only about 40 percent.
In 2001, the Chinese government allocated 40 million yuan (US$4.9 million) annually to provide free treatment to infectious pulmonary TB patients. Last year, the central government increased the budget to 300 million yuan.
"With the additional financial input, we are able to provide free treatment to all active pulmonary TB patients," Qi said.
Qi said China's goal is to have nationwide access by the end of this year to the WHO recommended TB control strategy, known as DOTS, which has a 90 percent recovery rate and a 70 percent detection rate.
One of the nation's Millennium Development Goals is to halve TB prevalence by 2015.
"China will continue to enhance all the preventative and control measures to curb the spread of TB in China and fulfill its promise to the international community," he said.
Tuberculosis is spread by coughing, sneezing, spitting and even talking. Each year about 2 million people worldwide die from this curable disease. It kills more young people and adults than any other infectious disease and is the world's biggest killer of women.
Nearly nine million people develop the disease annually, the vast majority of them in developing countries, where 99 percent of all TB deaths occur. According to the WHO, TB infection is currently spreading at the rate of one person per second.
About one-third of the world's population, or around 2 billion people, carry the TB bacteria but only about 10 percent develop the active disease.
The focus of this year's World TB Day is frontline TB care providers, including grassroots-level public health staff, lab technicians, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, nurses, private medical practitioners, pharmacists, shopkeepers, students and patient activists.
(China.org.cn, Xinhua News Agency March 24, 2005)