GENEVA/London (Reuters): Over two million people will contract a form of tuberculosis (TB) resistant to standard drugs by 2015 and the fight against it must be stepped up, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.
In a report launched on World TB Day, the United Nations health body and a global fund that directs money to the disease, called on governments to give their financial backing to a goal of diagnosing and treating a million people with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) between 2011 and 2015.
“Commitments by some countries are too slow off the mark or simply stalled,” said Rifat Atun, Director of Strategy, Performance and Evaluation at the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
If governments fail to commit more funds “the efforts of the last 10 years will be completely undermined,” he said.
Tuberculosis spreads through the air. If it is not effectively treated, each person with active TB can infect on average 10 to 15 people a year.
Up to a third of people worldwide are infected with the bacterium that causes TB, but only a small percentage ever develop the disease. Studies show people with substance abuse problems, those who are poor and those who live in hard-to-reach communities are more prone to the disease.
The AIDS epidemic drove up the number of TB cases across the world in the late 1980s and 1990s because the immune suppression caused by HIV can make a person far more susceptible to TB.
A separate report by the WHO’s European office and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) last week found TB kills an estimated 1.7 million people each year and the worldwide number of new cases – around 9.4 million – is higher than at any other time in history.
MDR-TB is a form of TB that does not respond to the standard treatments using first-line drugs, and leaving it untreated increases the risk of drug resistant strains of TB spreading.
The WHO said it estimates there will be more than two million new cases of MDR-TB between 2011 and 2015.
An article in The Lancet medical journal earlier this month said “increasing rates of drug-resistant TB in eastern Europe, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa now threaten to undermine the gains made by worldwide tuberculosis control programme.”
According to latest data from the WHO, there were an estimated 440,000 new MDR-TB cases in 2008, with three countries – China, India and Russia – accounting for more than 50 percent of all cases globally. Around 150,000 people died from MDR-TB in that year.
Since 2009, the 23 countries most heavily affected by TB drug resistance have nearly doubled their budgets for MDR-TB, but more needs to be done, the report said.
UNITAID, which uses funds from a levy on airline tickets in a number of donor countries, said incentives to develop new treatments were needed to attack the disease that is the eighth-biggest cause of death in low and middle-income countries. The last TB drug with a completely new active ingredient, rifampicin, was discovered almost half a century ago, it said. Existing treatment for standard TB takes so long (up to 18 months) and is so expensive ($2,000-$5,000 for six months) that “many patients desist on their treatment and go on to develop resistant strains of the disease,” it said.