UK risks time bomb of untreatable TB as number of drug-resistant cases rises rapidly

Doctors warn virulent strain of lung disease could get out of control

Medical experts warned last night that there could be a surge in cases of tuberculosis resistant to current drug treatments unless the Government takes urgent action.

Europe has seen a rapid increase in multi-drug-resistant – or MDR – tuberculosis, which cannot be treated with the two antibiotic treatments normally given to sufferers. In the past eight years scientists have seen an increase in another strain, known as XDR tuberculosis, which is resistant to even more TB drugs. A report published in The Lancet today warns that this more virulent variety could lead to the emergence of "untreatable tuberculosis".

In Britain the vast majority of TB cases are treatable. But cases of MDR jumped from 28 to 81 between 2000 and 2011, while some 24 cases of XDR tuberculosis have come to light in the past two years. Professor Alimuddin Zumla, from University College London and one of the authors of The Lancet report, warned that with growing immigration from eastern Europe these numbers could rise rapidly: "TB is a time bomb. If you don't curtail it now it will be out of control."

Professor Zumla cautioned that with the numbers of "home grown" resistant cases among the British-born population – particularly in London – also rising, the UK could find itself in the grip of a health emergency.

Tuberculosis was once one of the world's biggest killers and was known as the "white plague" when it ravaged Britain in Victorian times. By the 1970s it had almost been eradicated, but in the last 30 years there has been a major re-emergence of the disease, which is airborne and spread through close contact with others.

TB rates in Britain have increased rapidly and now stand at around 9,000 cases – the highest level since the 1970s. Between 2001 and 2010 more than 4,800 people died of TB in the UK. The Health Protection Agency has forecast that if the rise in TB continues at its current rate then by 2015 Britain will have more new cases each year than in the whole of the US.

Dr Paul Cosford, director for health protection at the newly formed Public Health England, said: "It's quite a striking figure that in the whole of the States there might be fewer cases of TB each year than in the whole of the UK, given the difference in population numbers. It's a bit of a wake-up call." He added: "The multi-drug resistance is a worry because this gets into an area where we're losing the ability to treat TB because of the lack of antibiotics."

A government task force is being set up to tackle the problem, and its first meeting will be next month. Dr Cosford said: "As a preventable and treatable condition which still causes much suffering, TB will be a major priority for Public Health England."

There is growing alarm at the rise of drug-resistant TB globally, with the World Health Organization estimating that there around 600,000 cases were diagnosed in 2011.

But experts say there are likely to be four times as many undiagnosed cases. It is now the world's second biggest infectious killer, and despite a recent decline in the number of TB-related mortalities, it was still blamed for an estimated 1.4 million deaths worldwide in 2011.

The highest levels of drug-resistant TB have emerged in the former Soviet Union. In countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan more than 30 per cent of new TB patients have the MDR strain. Across the globe, it is estimated that there are around 40,000 people suffering from XDR TB.

The Lancet report, published to coincide with World TB Day, warns: "The widespread emergence of XDR tuberculosis could lead to virtually untreatable tuberculosis. With the ease of international travel and increased rates of MDR in eastern Europe, central Asia and elsewhere, the threat and range of untreatable tuberculosis is very real."

Professor Mario Raviglione, director of the World Health Organization's TB department, said with drug-resistant strains spreading to 84 countries there is a pressing need for better treatments. Current tests to diagnose and the cocktail of drugs used to treat the disease are increasingly ineffective in the face of MDR and XDR tuberculosis, he added. "They are also quite toxic, so some of them can cause problems with the liver."

"Some others can cause problems with the brain – you get convulsions and psychologically strange behaviour. That's why we badly need research and badly need new tuberculosis drugs."

Case study: 'It's been a long and hard eight months for me. It's a massive relief to finally have the all clear'

After six years travelling the world Simon Richardson, 28, from Burgh Castle, Norfolk returned to Britain last year and tried to join the Army, only to find he had drug-resistant TB. Now back to full health, he joined the Army last week.

"I started to get pains in the left side of my chest but didn't think anything of it until it wouldn't go away – and started to get worse … It's been a long and hard eight months for me – the side-effects of the drugs were pretty bad – but it's a massive relief to finally have the all clear."

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Life and Style
life
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

    £16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

    £9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

    Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn