The Ministry of Health has pledged to ensure the right to free tuberculosis (TB) detection and treatment services, particularly among migrant workers.
The move is part of a major effort to curb the spread of TB, which has become China's top epidemic killer, with more than 130,000 people dying from the disease every year.
The country has about 5 million TB patients, 80 percent of whom live in the countryside, statistics of the Ministry of Health show.
"The mobile population, especially underprivileged migrant workers, have full access to free healthcare services in TB screening and treatment," Xiao Donglou, vice-director of the ministry's disease prevention and control bureau (CCDCP), said at a TB-control meeting.
"People infected with the airborne contagious disease should turn to local TB prevention and treatment organizations, where free disease screening test and further treatment are provided for all needed citizens, locals and migrants alike."
In 2001 the State Council promised free examinations and treatment for people infected with TB by earmarking 40 million yuan (US$5.17 million) in funds every year. The fund steadily increased, soaring 10-fold by 2006, when it hit 400 million yuan (US$51.7 million).
In recent years, considerable attention has been focused on farmers-turned-workers, who are under greater risk of contracting the disease due to comparatively poor medical awareness, high-density living conditions, and mobile lifestyle, Jiang Shiwen, director with the National Center for TB Control and Prevention, said.
With US$50 million from the global fund for TB control put in play last October, the Chinese government has launched a special-care program for China's 200 million migrant workers, Jiang said.
Besides free examinations and treatment, a monthly 100 yuan (US$12) allowance is distributed to each infected migrant worker in the two municipalities of Shanghai and Tianjin and five other economically advanced provinces.
"TB-awareness-raising campaigns among workers should be intensified as many simply endure the disease without seeking timely treatment, for fear of being fired and inability to pay high medical costs," Jiang said, reiterating that TB treatment is free of charge.
Left untreated, each person with active TB disease will infect on average 10 to 15 people yearly, medical experts said.
Every year in China more than 130,000 die from this treatable disease, nearly 10th of the world's total, WHO statistics show.
Among those who die, many end up with the drug-resistant TB, which is probably caused by delayed medical intervention, Jiang said.
Moreover, drug resistance, which occurs in 28 percent of China's total TB patients, arises from improper treatment regimens by healthcare workers and failure to ensure that patients complete the whole treatment course.
In response to mounting concerns over drug resistance, the Ministry of Health has announced plans to conduct a two-year national survey. Scheduled to begin in April, the project will involve 70 research bases covering all of China's provinces, ethnic minority regions, and four municipalities, a ministry official said.
Xiao Donglou said the ministry would establish a monitoring system for drug resistance as the study progressed. The survey is expected to cost more than 17 million yuan (US$2.15 million) including the purchase of facilities.
A similar survey in 2000 based on a much smaller research pool showed 27.8 percent of patients were resistant to one drug and 10.7 percent to more than one.
A TB patient who has developed drug resistance will need to be treated at a cost of 20,000 yuan (US$2,587) to get cured. A common TB sufferer is treated at a cost of only 150 yuan (US$19.40).
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency March 21, 2007)