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October 18, 2012

Tuberculosis Cases Down, Disease Still A Major Killer

by Carol Pearson

The World Health Organization reports that the number of people who caught tuberculosis (TB) fell last year, but it also said the number of deaths from TB remained the same and that TB is still a major killer.

The news from the World Health Organization is mixed: some 20 million people are alive today as a result of international efforts to control tuberculosis and care for those who have it. As a result, the death rate has dropped by 40 percent since 1990, but lately, it has remained stubbornly level.

And progress has been painfully slow in reducing the overall number of TB cases, and in containing the spread of multi-drug resistant strains of the infection.

Dr. Mario Raviglione, with the WHO, discussed the agency's 2012 report at a Washington news conference.

Dr. Raviglione said a shortage of money threatens to halt progress in containing the spread of TB, and he warns of serious consequences if this funding gap is not filled.

"We will have to accept that millions more people will be dying of tuberculosis on an annual basis. We'll have to accept that the incidents of TB, instead of going towards elimination-- which is what we hope for --is going to stagnate and increase again, and we'll have to accept that multi-drug resistant TB will be created and further spread," he said.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs, although it can be found in other organs. It's highly contagious, and it's transmitted by breathing in droplets of air from the cough or sneeze of a TB-infected person.

The WHO report shows more than half the number of TB cases are in Asia.  Forty percent are in India and China.

But the problem in sub-Saharan Africa is also severe because many of those who have TB also have HIV/AIDS. Eighty percent of those infected with both TB and HIV live in this region.

But doctors now have rapid TB tests that can show if a person has the infection in about an hour and a half. And new drugs to fight TB will soon be available.
 
"We expect two, if not three, entirely new compounds that kill the TB bacillus very effectively to be available in the next few months," Dr. Raviglione stated.

A vaccine to prevent TB is what scientists hope for. But until one can be developed, the World Heath Organization is calling for countries to commit to TB control programs and increased testing and for international donors to continue large-scale funding of these efforts.