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Drug resistance in TB cases alarms health officials

Man coughing
Man coughing iStockphoto

(CBS/AP) Health officials are sounding the alarm over the spread of dangerous forms of tuberculosis in Europe. The forms are worrisome because they exhibit drug resistance, meaning they are hard to kill with the drugs commonly used to treat TB.

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

On Tuesday, WHO released a plan to curb the spread of drug-resistant TB across Europe. It aims to diagnose 85 percent of all patients and to treat at least 75 percent of them by the end of 2015. Only about 32 percent of patients with drug-resistant TB in Western Europe get appropriate treatment. Many stop taking their medicines before the treatment course is up, allowing the bug to develop resistance.

WHO says 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 $5-billion plan is intended to save about 120,000 lives and $12 billion worth of diagnosis and treatment expenses by 2015.

Low awareness of the disease among health workers also allows it to spread. So says Anna Watterson, a London barrister who lost more than 20 pounds and spent months with a chronic cough in 2004 before doctors was finally diagnosed with drug-resistant tuberculosis.

"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.

Once diagnosed, Watterson spentfour months in isolation in the hospital and any 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 stigmatization that accompanies tuberculosis and work harder to identify patients before they spread the disease.

Ruth McNerney, a TB expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described WHO's plan as "overambitious." But she warned there could be a 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 good treatments," she said.

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