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'Tangible Progress' Reported in Control of TB in SE Asia

The World Health Organization has taken the occasion of World TB Day to document the progress and challenges in its fight against tuberculosis in its Southeast Asia region.

The United Nations health body warns it faces several challenges in its TB programs in the region. The World Health Organization says it main tasks are to sustain and expand services to countries struggling with poverty, rapid urbanization and large population displacements.

India accounts for 20 percent of all global tuberculosis cases. And while the overall death rate has been on the decline in the 11 countries in the WHO's Southeast Asia region, it is responsible for half a million deaths each year.

The region is composed of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and East Timor.

WHO officials are particularly concerned by data showing more than a third of patients getting repeat treatments in Thailand have multi-drug resistant TB. India has the highest such number of cases globally. Multi-drug resistant TB is much harder to treat successfully.

WHO's regional director of communicable diseases, Dr. Jai Narain, says that countries with such trends need to ensure the use of rational TB drug regimens.

"The emergence of drug-resistant TB is also a reflection of the quality of TB control programs. MDR [multi-drug resistant] levels are indeed reversible once we have good quality TB control programs," he said. "This has been demonstrated in many major cities like New York City, London and elsewhere."

Public health officials are worried about even worse strains of the disease that do not respond to treatments for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. Known as extensively drug resistant TB, it has been detected in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Thailand.

WHO, in its report released Wednesday blames the misuse of some less-effective drugs for the problem and warns of a real threat for the emergence of this super TB strain.

World Tuberculosis Day is observed on March 24 to commemorate this day in 1882 when the German physician Robert Koch (pronounced 'coke') announced he had discovered the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. At that time, TB, which usually attacks the lungs, was the single biggest disease threat to humanity.