Tuberculosis thrives in China, former Soviet states

A doctor checks the progress of a patient with tuberculosis at the Beijing Chest Hospital March 31, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Hornby

LONDON (Reuters) - Dangerous tuberculosis strains are thriving in China and the former Soviet Union, with up to 22 percent of infections in badly hit Azerbaijan resisting standard treatment, a new study shows.

A report published in The Lancet journal on Thursday found that in high-income countries, only 1 percent of tuberculosis infections cannot be treated with two or more front-line drugs.

However in Eastern Europe, World Health Organization (WHO) experts said, 19 percent of tuberculosis infections are multi-drug resistant (MDR-TB), with especially high rates in former Soviet Azerbaijan, Moldova, Estonia and Latvia.

Two provinces of China had multi-drug resistance rates of 7 percent, nearly double the regional rate in Southeast Asia and well above Latin America’s 3 percent and Africa’s 2 percent.

“Countries of the former Soviet Union, followed by some provinces of China, reported the highest prevalence of resistance,” the researchers said.

Ex-Soviet states “are facing a serious and widespread epidemic with the highest prevalence of MDR-TB ever reported,” said the study, based on data from more than 90,000 patients collected between 2002 and 2007 around the world.

Health experts blame drug shortages during the Soviet era and in its immediate aftermath for the region’s continuing large prevalence of drug-resistant tuberculosis strains.

There are 9 million new tuberculosis infections around the world each year, of which about 490,000 are multiple-drug resistant, according to WHO data.

The Lancet study authors said that better tests to identify what strains of infections patients have -- essential to ensure the right drugs are used to treat them -- were needed to control and prevent the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Editing by Farah Master