November 11, 2010 / 5:16 PM / 9 years ago

WHO says deadly TB preventable, urges action

GENEVA (Reuters) - Health authorities worldwide must do more to combat tuberculosis, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people last year, mainly adults in their prime in Africa and Asia, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Tuberculosis can be cured in six months if detected and treated early but can spread rapidly among people suffering from malnutrition or the HIV/AIDS infection, the U.N. agency said in its annual report, “Global Tuberculosis Control 2010.”

“There are still 1.7 million deaths every year from a disease that is perfectly curable in 2010,” Mario Raviglione, director of WHO’s Stop TB Department, told a news conference.

There were an estimated 9.4 million new TB cases last year, including 1.1 million among people infected with the HIV virus who are mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, according to WHO.

The report said countries need to do a better job of ensuring patients get access to treatment, antibiotics are used properly so that resistance does not develop and strict infection control measures are in place to limit spread.

New drugs are also on the horizon to deal with the biggest challenge, that posed by multiple drug-resistant strains called MDR-TB, which have emerged because patients do not always take the expensive first-line drugs as directed, it said.

“In terms of treatment, possibly in the next 2-3 years, we will have for the first time, I would say, since the 1970s, two or three compounds that are effective against multi-drug resistant TB. So this will give us an extra weapon,” Raviglione said.

The new drugs include a nitroimidazole by Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical, whose parent Otsuka Holdings plans to list in Tokyo next month, and a diarylquinoline by Tibotec, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, as well as others being developed by the Global TB Alliance, the WHO said.

MDR-TB infected an estimated 440,000 people in 2008 and is thought to be most widespread in China, India and Russia, but only a fraction of cases are reported to WHO.

Only 10,000 MDR-TB patients are believed to get the correct but complex treatment which takes from 18 months to 24 months, often with hospitalization. This is because countries often lack laboratories for diagnosis or fail to test for drug resistance.

“This is probably the biggest challenge of all and the one that countries at the moment are not facing the way they should,” Raviglione said.

The WHO laid out a new plan last month to combat tuberculosis that will cost about $47 billion from 2011-15.

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