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WHO Launches New Strategy to Fight Global Tuberculosis Epidemic

The World Health Organization is launching a new stop tuberculosis strategy to fight the global TB epidemic. WHO says new tools and methods must be made available to fight a disease that kills two million people every year, most of them in Africa and Asia.

WHO says its so-called DOTS TB treatment program will continue to be the core of the new six-point strategy. The program, which was launched in 1995, has treated more than 22 million patients. The course of treatment lasts six months and costs $15. Patients are given drugs and supervised to make sure they complete their treatment.

Mukund Uplekar is a medical officer in WHO's Stop TB Program. He says tuberculosis has become a more complex disease and needs new tools to tackle problems arising from HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, such as the new strains of TB, that are resistant to drugs. He says greater collaboration is needed between those running TB programs and HIV programs so they can treat the two diseases in tandem. He adds that the new medicines are expensive, which means more money will be required to make them available.

"We need to address the multi-drug resistant TB, which requires what we call the second line of TB drugs," said Mukund Uplekar. "They are more expensive, so they run into a problem of supply."

Dr. Uplekar says other elements of the new strategy call for the use of a wide array of care providers from the public and private sectors. He notes the new strategy promotes research into cheap diagnostic tools and the development of new drugs and a vaccine.

"We are looking for example for a drug, which will help us reduce the duration of treatment," he said. "Now, currently we have to take for six months a full course of treatment. If it can be reduced to say four months or three months or two months, that will greatly help because following up a patient for six months is a huge burden on the health system. And, of course a vaccine, which if it is available, we will give it as a preventative."

Tuberculosis is a disease of poverty. WHO says the disease has stabilized in Asia, but it is increasing in Africa, where it is driven by the HIV epidemic. Asia has the greatest burden of TB cases in terms of absolute numbers, but Africa has the highest rate of TB. WHO says tuberculosis is growing in Eastern Europe due to multi-drug resistance.

But Dr. Uplekar is hopeful that the WHO's new strategy will act as a boon in the effort to create a tuberculosis-free world.