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Drug-resistant TB on the rise in Asia: WHO

by Staff Writers
Manila (AFP) March 23, 2009
World health chiefs stressed Monday the urgent need for countries to strengthen their health systems to tackle the spread of tuberculosis amid the growing threat of drug-resistant TB.

The World Health Organisation's Dr. Pieter van Maaren told AFP that there were 112,000 new cases of drug-resistant TB in China alone in 2007 and figures for 2008 were likely to be similar.

Van Maaren, WHO's Western Pacific regional adviser for TB, said the Philippines is the second hardest-hit country in the region, with up to 6,000 new cases of resistant TB a year.

Vietnam had an estimated 3,000-4,000 new cases of multi-drug-resistant TB in 2007 while Cambodia had fewer than 1,000 resistant TB cases, he said ahead of World Stop TB Day on Tuesday.

Estimates for 2008 are not yet out but van Maaren told AFP that the rate of new infections will "likely be in the same range" as in 2007.

Exact figures are not available, he said, saying not all of these cases are diagnosed.

Van Maaren, based at the WHO's Western Pacific headquarters in Manila, warned drug-resistant TB was more difficult to diagnose and that drugs to treat it were limited, costly and had more side-effects.

It was "a man-made problem caused by insufficient or inappropriate treatment, a result of patients stopping treatment before they are cured," he said.

This can be seen in the Philippines and partly in China, where many TB patients resorted to "self-medication" without getting the proper medical advice, allowing the TB bacilli to survive, he added.

In contrast, the rates of drug-resistant TB in Vietnam and Cambodia were lower partly because of their good control programmes and also because powerful anti-TB drugs had only been introduced in those countries in the past decade, "so the TB bacilli did not have time to develop resistance."

WHO regional director for the Western Pacific Shin Young-Soo said despite gains using the WHO-recommended TB control strategy, effective TB control had been hampered by weaknesses in health systems such as chronic staff shortages and inadequate resources.

"Our available tools work but they are not enough," said Shin.

Tuberculosis is a contagious lung disease that spreads through the air, including through coughing and sneezing.

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