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If TB's always been around, why are we hearing so much about it now

00:00 Tue 15th May 2001 |

asks Woolley:
A.
There has been a resurgence of TB in the UK: almost 3,000 new cases were reported last year, a rise of 35% since 1995. And it's not just in this country: it is estimated that a third of the world's population has TB. Three million people die from it each year, making it the leading cause of death from infection.

Q. Why the resurgence
A.
Most of the outbreaks in the UK crop up in Asian communities or in African immigrants in London and are linked with their visits to home countries where the disease is widespread. Increased foreign travel and a general complacency about TB vaccinations have their parts to play, too.


There is also concern that some strains of TB have become resistant to modern drugs. Drug-resistant strains can already be found in some areas, such as the Baltic states and parts of Africa. It is a particular problem for areas of high HIV infection, where sufferers are highly susceptible to infection.

Q. Why is TB such a successful disease
A.
It was probably the world's biggest killer from the 17th-19th century, when it was known as consumption. The bacterium that causes TB, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is surrounded by an unusual waxy covering, which experts believe is the reason why it can survive in human body cells and why most common antibacterial agents are ineffective against it.


Q. Why don't we get vaccinated any more
A.
Everyone used to be vaccinated at about age 14, but that was suspended two years ago because of a problem with supplies. Vaccination has now been reintroduced in London for 11- to 13-year-olds and will be extended to other areas later this summer. However, the price of vaccination has quadrupled in price, and some doctors claim that it would cost less to treat victims than to vaccinate the country's teenagers. But TB specialists claim that cutting corners is a false economy: it costs about �500 to cure a simple case of TB, and this rises to �50,000 in drug-resistant cases.

Q. Apart from vaccination, what can be done
A.
Cases of TB need to be detected and treated quickly to avoid cases of drug-resistant TB. However, more TB specialists and health professionals are needed first: only six out of the UK's 42 TB hotspot districts have enough staff.

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By Sheena Miller

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