The number of people with tuberculosis fell last year for the first time ever, and TB deaths reached their lowest level in a decade according to the World Health Organization’s 2011 Global Tuberculosis Control Report. But, the organization warned, underfunding remains a serious risk to progress – particularly in the battle to curtail multi-drug-resistant TB.
“In many countries, strong leadership and domestic financing, with robust donor support, has started to make a real difference in the fight against TB,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan in a statement. “The challenge now is to build on that commitment, to increase the global effort – and to pay particular attention to the growing threat of multi-drug-resistant TB.”
That threat is particularly acute in Europe, where just last month a WHO official warned that drug-resistant TB is spreading at an “alarming” rate and there are few drugs left to treat it. The organization released a $5 billion plan aimed at curtailing the spread by 2015.
The new WHO report shows the number of people who contracted TB dropped to 8.8 million in 2010, down from a peak of 9 million in 2005 and that TB deaths dropped to 1.4 million in 2010 from a high of 1.8 million in 2003. The organization says the decline is due in part to better access to medical treatment and better surveillance.
The report also shows the TB death rate dropped 40% between 1990 and 2010, and all regions, with the exception of Africa, are on track reduce deaths by 50% by 2015. China in particular has made “dramatic” progress in curbing infections according to WHO — with a nearly 80% drop in TB deaths between 1990 and 2010. Kenya and Tanzania were also cited; both countries have seen a significant drop in cases over the past ten years following a peak linked to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Brazil, too, has seen a sustained decline in infections.
“The findings reflect a significant milestone for global health,” said Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of WHO’s Stop TB Department, at a news briefing. “But history teaches that we cannot be complacent about TB. The international community therefore must not perceive these achievements as job done.”
Tuberculosis is a global pandemic and is the second leading infectious killer of adults worldwide, behind HIV/AIDS. About one third of the world’s population is infected with the bacteria that causes TB, but only a fairly small percentage of those infected will fall ill or become infectious. Left untreated, though, people with active TB can each infect an average of 10-15 people a year.
Last December, a new rapid test for multi-drug-resistant TB was released and according to Dr. Raviglione “is revolutionizing TB diagnosis.” Following WHO’s endorsement of the test last year, 26 countries are using it and at least ten more countries are expected to have it by the end of this year.
“But,” as Dr. Raviglione added, “the promise of testing more people must be matched with the commitment to treat all detected. It would be a scandal to leave diagnosed patients without treatment.”
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