By Laura MacInnis
GENEVA, June 10 (Reuters) - The cyclone that devastated Myanmar last month forced many tuberculosis sufferers to stop their treatment, triggering fears of drug-resistant strains spreading, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Tuesday.
Myanmar had 83,000 cases of the highly contagious disease in 2006 causing 6,000 deaths, according to the WHO’s most recent figures for the diplomatically isolated country whose army rulers were initially reluctant to let in foreign aid workers after Cyclone Nargis hit on May 2.
The storm killed up to 134,000 people, left 2.4 million destitute, and destroyed many of the health centres which handed out antibiotics.
WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said experts from the United Nations agency would travel to cyclone-affected areas this week to track down tuberculosis patients who lost access to their drugs since the May 2 storm.
"They will go to the hospitals and health centres, look at the records, look how many people were on treatment, and then try to trace them in villages and camps," Chaib said, calling the hiatus resulting from the storm "a serious issue".
"Tuberculosis is a life-threatening disease. Interrupting a course of six-month treatment can have an effect on creating resistance to tuberculosis drugs," she said.
Any pause in a course of antibiotics can give the bacterium causing tuberculosis a chance to mutate and build up immunity to standard medicines. Drug-resistant strains can require patients to take an expensive and arduous course of pills and injections, and some types are virtually untreatable.
Even before the cyclone, the weak health system and pervasiveness of fake drugs in Myanmar were seen as potential triggers for drug-resistant tuberculosis.
While no cases of "extensively drug-resistant" or "XDR" tuberculosis have been confirmed by the WHO in Myanmar, aid workers from Medicins Sans Frontieres last year reported cases among migrants from Myanmar in neighbouring Thailand, raising concerns that it may already exist in the secretive state.
Chaib said authorities in Myanmar had worked hard with the WHO in recent years to fight the respiratory disease, which spreads through the air and kills about 1.5 million people worldwide every year.
In addition to tracking patients and helping them resume treatment, WHO staff deployed to Myanmar’s cyclone-affected region will also seek to bolster general health services for those displaced by the storm.
The WHO is appealing for clean water and sanitation supplies to help reduce the risks of water-borne diseases among cyclone survivors. With the monsoon season coming, the U.N. agency said it was also critical for Myanmar to take steps to prevent malaria and other diseases spread by mosquitoes. (Editing by Caroline Drees)