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WHO Launches Plan to Fight Drug-Resistant TB

The World Health Organization has launched a multi-billion dollar plan designed to prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis and save as many as 134,000 lives over the next two years. WHO is appealing for more than $2 billion to implement the plan. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The World Health Organization reports there are nearly nine million new cases of tuberculosis every year. The patients can be cured by using four simple drugs. However, WHO estimates 424,000 of these people will not respond to two of the drugs.

The Director of WHO's Stop TB Department, Mario Raviglione, says these multi-drug resistant patients will have to use so-called second line drugs that are more costly and more difficult to use.

"If then, a patient at a certain point develops a form of TB that is not just multi-drug resistant, i.e. resistant to the basic treatment, but also now resistant to additional, second-line drugs, you are facing what is called XDR-TB or extensively drug-resistant TB," said Mario Raviglione.

The damage this can cause was seen when an epidemic of XDR-TB cases broke out last year in an area of South Africa with a high prevalence of HIV, which makes people extremely susceptible to TB. In the African case, all but one of the 53 patients died in an average of 25 days.

WHO's plan for controlling this global threat includes strengthening programs to treat multi drug-resistant TB, and expanding infection control and surveillance measures. Its strategy also aims to help countries build up the capacity of their laboratories to diagnose the disease.

WHO says this is particularly urgent in Africa. Although Africa has one of the highest rates of Tuberculosis in the world, 47 countries do not have the laboratories needed to diagnose extensively drug-resistant TB.

Paul Nunn Coordinates WHO's TB/HIV and Drug Resistance Program. He says it is critical that basic TB control programs are done properly.

"One of the key messages to come across is that you need to make sure that basic TB, drug susceptible TB, if you like, is managed properly so that drug resistance does not occur," siad Paul Nunn. "And, drug resistance occurs when basic TB control is not sufficiently invested in, when the use of drugs is not properly done, when there is poor management of those drugs. And, also when the conditions are right for the transmission of TB, including drug-resistant TB around health facilities, around airplanes, buses, whatever."

So far, 37 countries have confirmed cases of XDR-TB. WHO estimates there are 25,000 to 30,000 new cases every year.

Dr. Nunn says it will take at least five to 10 years before new drugs are available to treat extensively drug-resistant TB.

He says 1.2 million lives can be saved by 2015 if WHO' s plan of action is funded and implemented. But, he warns the world could be thrust back into the pre-antibiotic era if the battle against XDR-TB is not won.