UK tuberculosis cases rise by 5.5 per cent

Cases of tuberculosis rose by more than 5% last year, prompting the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to warn today that the UK must remain vigilant.

The total number of UK cases rose to 9,153 in 2009, up 5.5% on the 8,679 of 2008, according to provisional figures from the HPA.

More than a third of the cases - 3,476 - were in London. The West Midlands accounted for another 1,035 but both regions saw little change from 2008.

The biggest rises were in Wales and the South West. Cases in Wales rose by nearly a third (31.7%), from 167 in 2008 to 220 last year and cases in the South West rose by just over a quarter (25.8%), from 268 to 337.

There were also rises of just over 10% in the East Midlands (to 596 cases), the North West (to 841 cases) and the South East (to 765 cases).

There was a slight fall (down 2.3% to 168 cases) in the North East and a fall of 28.8% in Northern Ireland from 59 infections in 2008 to 42 in 2009.

Ibrahim Abubakar, a TB expert at the HPA's centre for infections, said the increase is the biggest rise since 2005 when confirmed UK cases rose 9.4% to 8,394.

"This increase shows that we must remain vigilant in our fight against TB," he said.

"This is an entirely preventable and curable infection, but it can be fatal if prompt diagnosis and treatment are not given."

Dr Abubakar said people should be aware of the main symptoms which include a fever, night sweats, a persistent cough, weight loss and blood in sputum (phlegm or spit), and should see their GP if they experience several symptoms for three weeks or more.

The infection is usually caught after prolonged and close contact with a sufferer but not all cases are infectious and it is uncommon to catch the infection from a child.

TB can lead to lung damage if left untreated but can usually be cured with a six-month course of antibiotics.

Professor Maria Zambon, director of the HPA's centre for infections, said: "Although some progress is being made, the consistent increase in the number of cases of TB in the UK means our efforts to control the disease must be strengthened.

"Both health professionals and the general public alike must remain vigilant if we are to eradicate this major global killer infection."

The HPA will launch a national strain typing service in May this year to improve understanding of how TB is spread in the community.

The information will be used to identify at-risk groups and to help the allocation of public health resources to prevent outbreaks and improve diagnosis and treatment.