London faces TB epidemic as drugs fail

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The Independent Online
THE GLOBAL epidemic of tuberculosis is out of control and threatening Britain and other Western countries, experts said yesterday.

At least 50 people a week are falling victim to the disease in London and cases have doubled in the past decade. Experts said that the growth in cases in London mirrored that in New York before its outbreak a decade ago, which affected 2,000 and cost more than $1bn (pounds 0.6bn) to control.

The white death, so called because of the deathly pallor of its victims, kills more people worldwide than Aids or malaria - two to three million a year - and the emergence of drug-resistant strains has increased the threat.

There are 6,500 cases of tuberculosis in the UK each year, and one in 20 shows signs of drug resistance. Most patients can be cured with a cocktail of cheap antibiotics, taken for six months, costing about pounds 50. But about 100 patients in Britain have developed multi-drug resistance. In them the disease takes years to treat and costs at least pounds 50,000.

To mark World TB day today international experts warned that the emergence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis posed one of the greatest threats to global health and called for urgent action to curb its growth. In Russia, an estimated 100,000 are infected with resistant strains, most of them prisoners, because of the country's collapsing health system. Asia is also badly hit.

The International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases, based in Paris, said: "If we wait a year or two more, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis may well become the principal epidemic of the next decade, spreading beyond Russia and Asia into Western Europe."

In Britain, Dr Peter Davies, a consultant chest physician in Liverpool and secretary of TB Alert, a charity to be launched today, said the number of cases in Britain had risen sharply between 1987 and 1993, and the increase had been sustained since. London cases were mirroring the situation in New York a decade ago. "The graph showing the increase in cases overlaps. The rise in TB in Britain has been sustained for the last six years because the disease is out of control worldwide," he said.

Tuberculosis is a stubborn bacterium which requires six months of treatment to eradicate. Poor countries could not afford sufficient drugs and patients often failed to finish the course, encouraging the development of resistant strains.

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