Marshalls take emergency measures to tackle tuberculosis

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The government of the Marshalls Islands is taking emergency measures to tackle an outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the western Pacific nation, officials said Thursday.

Only six cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) have so far been confirmed in the tiny nation of around 55,000 people but there are fears it will spread further.

The cabinet Wednesday authorized 1.9 million US dollars in emergency funding to beef up the Ministry of Health's prevention program for tuberculosis, an infectious disease which killed more than 1.7 million people in 2007, according to World Health Organisation figures.

The cabinet also approved regulations banning known patients with regular tuberculosis and MDR-TB and their contacts from travelling outside the Marshall Islands without the approval of the director of public health.

Majuro Hospital administrator Marie Lanwi-Paul said Thursday the ministry was urgently stepping up screening and treatment of tuberculosis.

The large number of people who have had contact with MDR-TB patients would need to be identified and treated with preventive drugs for about nine months, Lanwi-Paul said.

Health officials in the second major urban centre of Ebeye have identified up to 200 possible contacts of the four patients diagnosed with MDR-TB, and are screening them for the disease.

MDR-TB cases are increasing throughout the Pacific islands, said an official at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in Noumea.

Cases have been also been reported in the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Papua New Guinea, said Janet O'Connor of the SPC's tuberculosis division.

While normal tuberculosis can be cured within six months, MDR-TB requires extensive treatment for up to two years with a combination of drugs, which have more side effects.

MDR-TB develops when tuberculosis patients stop taking medication and the disease gains immunity to regular drugs used to treat the disease worldwide.

Lanwi-Paul said individual cases of MDR-TB cost nearly 200,000 dollars to successfully treat.

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