a lethal comeback
March 22, 1996
Web posted at: 12:20 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Margaret Lowrie
LONDON (CNN) -- At the turn of the century, tuberculosis killed more than a million people a year before it was eventually suppressed by modern medicine. But this near-forgotten disease is staging a lethal comeback: Today, it is the world's leading infectious killer.
It can be prevented, even cured in most cases, but tuberculosis killed 3 million people last year, more than ever before, says the World Health Organization (WHO)
WHO's Dr. Joel Almeida says the current TB outbreak as a "fire raging out of control" in developing nations.
Experts are loath to call TB a "re-emerging" disease because it never really went away. They say the perception of its eradication created a dangerous complacency that may claim millions more lives.
In a report released Thursday, WHO says there are 15 million people with TB. Most of them are in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Rim.
The facts about the disease are frightening.
According to WHO's Dr. Arata Kochi, TB germs can remain suspended in the air for hours, enabling the disease to spread easily. (119K AIFF sound or 119K WAV sound)
Dr. Paul Nunn, also of the WHO, says it is crucial for TB patients to follow a drug regimen. Otherwise, he says, the repercussions can be severe.
"If you don't take those drugs right to the end of the treatment, a) you will get tuberculosis again, and b) when you do get it again there is a huge risk that it will be resistant (to drugs)," Nunn said.
Some 50 million people may carry drug-resistant strains, according to the WHO, which predicts that TB, if unchecked, will claim 30 million lives over the next decade and infect another 60 million.
"There hasn't been anything like enough research done into tuberculosis. We haven't developed any new drugs specifically for TB for nearly 30 years."
-- Dr. John Moore-Gillon, British Lung Foundation
WHO is pressing governments to implement "directly observed treatment," a new, six-month regime that uses a combination of four drugs to kill TB bacteria.
This short course of treatment costs as little as $11 and cures more than 95 percent of cases, WHO says.
But so far, directly observed treatment is available to only one-fifth of the world's 15 million TB sufferers. Hard-hit countries like South Africa and China have barely begun to implement the treatment.
WHO, which declared TB a global emergency three years ago, also is urging more spending on prevention, particularly in poorer countries.
Although TB has severely assaulted poorer countries, WHO says it has also returned to the first world "with a vengeance." The United States, Italy and Britain report recent outbreaks of the drug-resistant variety.
Despite the global epidemic, WHO says many governments -- particularly in industrialized nations -- still don't take the warnings seriously enough. The U.N. health agency has urged them to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into fighting TB.
- Medical Matrix: Tuberculosis from the University of Kansas' Medical School
- Tuberculosis Fact Sheet from the Maryland Department of Public Health
- Tuberculosis and related infections unit from the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, U.K.
- Tuberculosis from the North Eastern Health Care Network, Melbourne, Australia
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