Deadly TB war going global

Following reports that evidence of XDR-TB had been found in parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it will convene a special meeting of health experts in Geneva this month to formulate a ‘battle plan’ against the disease, which has killed an estimated 60 people in South Africa.

They said there were fears that the drug resistant disease had managed to spread outside the continent and could spread across the globe claiming more lives before a cure was found.

Health officials in South Africa said the disease had managed to spread out of the Kwazulu-Natal province where it was first discovered to other parts of the country.

Of the Fifty-three XDR-TB cases discovered in Kwazulu-Natal earlier this year, 52 were fatal, with the patients dying within 25 days of contracting the disease.

Three weeks ago, six cases of XDR-TB were confirmed in the country’s Gauteng province, three of which were being treated, while the other three were yet to be traced.

However it is the possibility of a lethal global epidemic posed by the disease that has had the international health community at loggerheads.

Local health experts say there has been a delayed reaction to the disease, and that while a lot has been done, the possibility of a global spread could have been significantly cut down if current measures had been put in place when the disease was first discovered.

“If all that is being done now, in terms of putting together international task forces and people putting their heads together, had been done when the disease was first identified then perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with the threat of a global epidemic.

“But then we are and what is being done now, under the circumstances is definitely commendable,” a Health

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Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School said.

Health experts meeting in South Africa said urgent action was now being taken to ensure that the disease was reigned in without causing anymore damage.

“There is no time to wait before we embark on decisive action,” WHO’s Dr Ernesto Jaramillo said.

He said an urgent solution needed to be found for the disease.

Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) health ministers have put XDR-TB at the top of their agendas, following a request by South African health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

“I have been in touch with the WHO as well as ministers of health in the region. I have requested an urgent meeting with experts from the WHO so that we can get assistance to develop a national as well as a regional strategy to deal with XDR-TB,” Tshabalala-Msimang said.

In a joint statement the ministers said they had agreed to enhance surveillance systems for TB in their countries, as well as to develop a regional preparedness plan to deal with XDR-TB in SADC.

According to WHO, TB infects between 8-10 million people each year, while an estimated 1.7 million of these reported patients die.

While the statistics show that the standard form of the disease is treatable, this is made difficult by the lengthy treatment time of between 6 months and two years, which experts say puts pressure on health infrastructure, particularly in developing countries.

They say the XDR-TB strain of the disease poses difficulties for countries in Africa because of the ease with which it is transmitted and the huge cost of treating the disease.

Tuberculosis, including the XDR-TB strain is an airborne disease that spreads through the coughs and sneezes of infected people.

The symptoms of the disease include weight loss, fever and night sweats, while patients cough up blood in the advanced stages of the disease.

“When it is untreated, TB basically kills patients by boring holes in their lungs,” Dr Roseline Mensah said.

October 2006
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