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World Tuberculosis Day - 2002-03-24

To mark World Tuberculosis Day, the World Health Organization is kicking off a year-long campaign to stop the spread of the disease which kills two million people every year. The WHO has chosen the theme "Stop TB, Fight Poverty" to show that tackling this disease will lead to greater global prosperity.

Tuberculosis is a contagious disease that spreads through the air, easily infecting people living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. WHO estimates that there are eight million new cases of TB every year.

WHO TB expert Petra Heitkamp says tuberculosis is the second leading cause of death from infectious diseases, accounting for some five percent of the world total. Yet she says there is an inexpensive and effective cure, which could prevent most of these deaths. She says the treatment, known as DOTS, costs as little as $30. "This year's World TB day, we are really focusing on the fact that tuberculosis is very much linked to poverty," Ms. Heitkamp said. "And what we want to show is that tuberculosis has, in fact, the treatment strategy, it has the country plans, it has a clear outline of how we can tackle this problem and with that to help economies in countries on all levels improve."

Public health officials estimate $1 billion will be needed to treat patients and control the TB epidemic in 22 countries in Africa and Asia that accounts for 80 percent of the disease worldwide.

Although tuberculosis is mainly a disease of the developing world, WHO says it is making a comeback in the wealthy, industrialized nations. It notes that some countries, such as the United States, have drastically cut back on funding for treatment.

Ms. Heitkamp says drug-resistant tuberculosis and poor immigrant communities are causing a resurgence of the disease in developed countries. "We can see a major increase in drug-resistant tuberculosis in countries -for instance in the Baltic States or in the former Russian states," she pointed out. "And these are very close to the European and the Western world. And, since tuberculosis is a bacteria which travels through air, it is very easy to catch it. So that means that everyone is actually vulnerable to having tuberculosis, and that is not something that we can prevent."

The World Health Organization says the multi-drug DOTS strategy works. It says that on average, 80 percent of TB patients in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America who have followed this treatment have been cured.