China fights growing problem of tuberculosis

Tue Jan 5, 2010 7:12pm EST
 
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By Tan Ee Lyn

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - China, saddled with the world's second largest tuberculosis burden after India, is fighting an uphill battle against drug-resistant forms of the disease which will only drain the country's health budget.

Drug-resistant TB, far more expensive to treat, emerges when patients fail to follow treatment regimens and take substandard drugs or stop treatment too early.

Liu Zhongwu, a stonecutter working in southern China, for example, stopped taking his TB medication midway through a standard six-month course in 2007 because it was too costly.

"Even though one or two drugs were free, I had to pay 500 yuan ($73) a month for other drugs (to reduce side effects) and the side effects were bad, I suffered terrible gastric pain and had to stop work, I didn't even have energy to walk," said Liu.

It is precisely this sort of behavior that health experts are trying to stop because if the TB bacteria is not fully eliminated, it can mutate, resurge later and become resistant to the small arsenal of drugs that can fight the disease.

China has 4.5 million TB cases currently; and each year 1.4 million people fall ill with the disease. TB killed 160,000 people in China in 2008, according to the World Health Organization.

TB killed 1.8 million people across the world in 2008, or a person every 20 seconds. It is not only a scourge in poor countries but also in the West, where it has flared anew in the last 20 years because of AIDS, which weakens the immune system.

DRUG-RESISTANT STRAIN   Continued...