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Africa Health Ministers Declare State of Emergency for TB

Regional health ministers in Africa Friday declared tuberculosis an emergency on the continent. The measure underlines a new commitment to fight a disease that is killing more than 500,000 people a year on the world's poorest continent.

The decision to declare the emergency to help stamp out tuberculosis was agreed to at the 55th session of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Regional Committee for Africa, which was attended by health ministers from 40 African countries. The weeklong meeting, held in Mozambique, ended Friday, shortly after the announcement of the campaign against tuberculosis.

TB is second only to HIV/AIDS as an infectious killer of adults around the globe, causing nearly nine million cases of active disease and two million deaths every year.

Although it has only 11 percent of the world's population, Africa accounts for more than 25 percent of the world's cases of tuberculosis. The World Health Organization says the number of new TB cases has quadrupled in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990 and continues to rise across the continent. It is estimated that 540,000 Africans die of TB each year.

According to Marcus Espinol, who heads the Stop TB Partnership in Geneva, the decision to declare the TB emergency should unlock more money from the Global Fund and other international organizations. Right now, Mr. Espinol says, African nations only get a small percentage of money from the Global Fund to fight TB.

"You should know that only 10 percent, in fact, less than 10 percent of the funding, paid by the Global fund to [fight] TB, has come to Africa," he said.

Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, like former South African President Nelson Mandela, is a survivor of tuberculosis, reacted quickly to the declaration by the health ministers. He urged African leaders to quickly implement programs to fight tuberculosis in their countries.

"I hope very much that the political leaders of Africa will show their commitment and demonstrate that they have the political will," said Mr. Tutu.

The declaration was part of a broader program that the WHO has outlined calling for $2.2 billion in new funding for TB control in Africa in 2006-2007.

Tuberculosis is the leading killer of people living with HIV/AIDS. Of the estimated 25 million Africans now living with HIV, about eight million also harbor the bacteria that causes TB.