WHO ready to declare emergency over African tuberculosis

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The Independent Online

By declaring the rising rates of TB infection to be an emergency, it is hoped to unlock extra money from the G8 nations and the Global Fund, which helps developing countries fight disease.

Rates of tuberculosis are rising alarmingly in Africa, where it is linked to the spread of HIV/Aids. HIV weakens the immune system and makes sufferers more susceptible to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, which they cannot afford to treat.

Tuberculosis is now believed to be the single biggest killer of adults and young people in the world and accounts for a third of Aids-related deaths. In Africa, it kills more than 500,000 people a year.

Most strains of tuberculosis can be treated with a six-month course of antibiotics, but many African sufferers have no access to medical care or medication. The most common vaccination used in the West, the BCG, has been found to be ineffective in countries near the equator.

Lee Jong-wook, WHO's director general, said provision of anti-retroviral drugs was a key part of his strategy to fight HIV and tuberculosis. "I hope that in five years everybody will have access to these medicines," he said.

Tuberculosis declined dramatically in Europe and the US in the 20th century after a sustained programme of public education and mass chest X-rays of schoolchildren, but it has begun to rise through Aids and increased air travel. Scientists are also worried about the emergence of new strains of tuberculosis resistant to modern drugs.

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