Tuberculosis

14 September 2011

Drug-resistant TB spreading in Europe

When Anna Watterson lost more than 10Kgs and developed a cough she couldn't shake, she was afraid she'd caught some mysterious disease.

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When Anna Watterson lost more than 10 kg and developed a cough she couldn't shake, she was afraid she'd caught some mysterious disease.

After repeated visits to the doctor and months of being sick, the London barrister was finally diagnosed with drug-resistant tuberculosis. She isn't sure where she caught it - either travelling in India years before or living in northwest London, a tuberculosis hotspot - but experts say patients like Watterson are becoming increasingly common across Europe.

"Nobody in Europe is 100% protected from drug-resistant tuberculosis," said Ogtay Gozalov, a medical officer at the World Health Organization. He described the disease's spread in Europe as alarming and said previous measures to contain the outbreak were inadequate.

Many patients are drug abusers

The WHO released a new plan to fight the disease across Europe that aims to diagnose 85% of all patients and treat at least 75% of them by the end of 2015. Only about 32% of patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis in Western Europe are properly treated; many stop taking their medicines before the treatment course is finished, allowing the bug to develop resistance.

According to WHO, the nine countries with the world's highest rates of drug resistance in new tuberculosis patients are in Europe, including Azerbaijan, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.

The agency's plan will cost R35 billion and is intended to save about 120,000 lives and R88 billion in diagnosis and treatment expenses by 2015.

Watterson said low awareness of the disease among health workers also allows it to spread.

"There was a delay in my diagnosis because I was a white, middle-class person and doctors didn't think to test for it," she said. Most patients with the disease are immigrants from poor countries or people who abuse drugs and alcohol.

WHO overambitious

Once diagnosed, Watterson was put into isolation for four months in the hospital and all visitors had to wear masks. She took a cocktail of drugs for nearly two years, some of which made her nauseous and so sensitive to sunlight she had to wear gloves to protect her hands in the summer.

Some experts said officials must address the stigmatisation that often accompanies tuberculosis and work harder to identify patients before they spread the disease.

Ruth McNerney, a tuberculosis expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described the WHO's plan as overambitious. But she warned there could be a much bigger crisis in the future.

"If we don't solve this soon, we could end up with so much drug-resistant tuberculosis that it will be like being back in the Victorian age when there were no proper treatments," she said.

 (Sapa, September 2011) 

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