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Global Tuberculosis Rate Holding Steady

A new report says the global tuberculosis epidemic has leveled off for the first time since the World Health Organization declared TB a public health emergency in 1993. WHO's Global Tuberculosis Control report finds the percentage of the world's population struck by TB peaked in 2004 and then held steady in 2005. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

In 2005, the World Health Organization reports nearly nine million people became infected with tuberculosis and about 1.6 million people died of the disease. It says almost 60 percent of TB cases worldwide are now detected and the vast majority are cured.

The director of the WHO's Stop TB Department, Mario Raviglione, says success against the disease is due to the regular, if slow, decline of TB in Asia and Latin America, as well as a possible peaking of the TB epidemic in Africa and eastern Europe.

"If the trend that we are foreseeing happening today is confirmed in the next three or four years, than the Millennium Development Goal relevant to TB, that of declining incidence, may actually be reached years before 2015, which is the hope that we have," he said.

WHO's goal is to cut TB worldwide by 70 percent and to cure 85 percent of those cases that are detected by 2015. Over the past decade, 26 million patients have been placed on WHO's Stop TB Strategy, known as DOTS.

Dr. Raviglione says TB deaths have declined in countries that have adopted this treatment program. However, he says the pace of reduction is so slow that at the present rate, it could take centuries to eliminate the disease. He says the actual number of TB cases also is rising because people are living longer and the global population is expanding. Another problem, the WHO official says, is that some of the drugs used to fight it are not as effective as they once were.

"The other piece of bad news is multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, which is resistant to the first line drugs… It is at alarming levels in the former Soviet Union and in parts of China… Still worse is the appearance… of extensively drug resistant tuberculosis which is a form of TB resistant also to second line drugs," said Raviglione.

WHO warns the spread of this form of TB resistance poses a serious threat to progress and could even reverse recent gains. It says the situation will be particularly serious in Africa where TB remains a major cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS. An estimated one-third of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide are also infected with TB.

The executive director of UNAIDS, Peter Piot, warns anti-tuberculosis drug resistance in sub-Saharan Africa jeopardizes much of the progress made so far in HIV/AIDS treatment.

Piot explains, "It developed in large part due to inadequate investment in basic tuberculosis control programs. And it is able to spread rapidly among communities of people living with HIV because of poor health infrastructure and inadequate access to HIV prevention and treatment services.

Dr. Piot says HIV and TB treatment services have to be more integrated than ever before.

The World Health Organization is calling for greater investment in research for better diagnostic tools, new drugs and vaccines.