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China joins in world TB effort

THE chief of the World Health Organization warned in Beijing yesterday that emerging, hard-to-treat strains of tuberculosis are set to spiral out of control and urged countries to fight the growing threat to global public health.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told health ministers and senior officials from the 27 countries most affected by the new drug-resistant strains of TB that they must make dramatic improvements in detecting infections and build stronger health care systems. The problem is especially significant in China.

"Call it what you may - a time-bomb or a powder keg," Chan said at the opening of a three-day meeting on drug-resistant TB in China's capital. "Any way you look at it, this is a potentially explosive situation."

In a spur to action, China's Health Ministry and software magnate Bill Gates' foundation announced a US$33-million project to test new ways to diagnose drug-resistant TB, new treatments and better ways to track patients.

TB is caused by germs that spread when a person with active TB coughs, sneezes or speaks. It is an ancient and treatable disease, but it has now evolved into stronger forms: multi-drug resistant TB, which does not respond to two top drugs, and extensively drug-resistant TB, which is virtually untreatable.

Epidemic possible

Left unchecked, people with drug-resistant TB could potentially spread the disease to others, creating an epidemic in the highly mobile global economy. Even when the disease is detected, the infected have to switch to more potent and expensive medicines, posing a problem for many countries with underfunded health-care systems.

Of the more than 9 million people around the world who contract tuberculosis every year, about 500,000 get multi-drug resistant TB. Nearly a quarter of them are in China.

"I urge you to make the right policy decisions with appropriate urgency," Chan told the officials. "At a time of economic downturn, the world simply cannot afford to let a threat of this magnitude, complexity and cost spiral out of control."

Chan said less than 5 percent of the estimated cases of drug-resistant TB were being detected and fewer than 3 percent were being treated according to WHO standards.

Countries attending the meeting are expected to start drawing up five-year national plans to prevent and control the spread of drug-resistant TB.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation chose to fund the TB project in China because, Bill Gates said, the scale of the problem is great and the government has the ability to set an example for the world.

"Because of its skill, its scale, its TB burden, its love of innovation and its political commitment to public health, China is a perfect laboratory for large-scale testing of new tools and delivery techniques to fight TB," Gates said.


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