WHO plan is unveiled to control tuberculosis

Cost-effective: Program targets disease that is one of the world's leading infectious killers.

May 19, 2001

TUBERCULOSIS kills more than 2 million people each year. Another 8 million become sick from the contagious killer. About 2 billion humans carry the TB germ.

TB is the world's leading curable infectious killer. And the emphasis is on the word curable.

This increasing global threat could be effectively reined in under a new plan developed by the World Health Organization. About 70 percent of those infected could be treated for an additional $400 million a year, a tiny fraction of the projected cost of fighting AIDS.

For less than $20 per patient, the worldwide death rate of TB could be cut by more than half within a decade, the United Nations health agency predicts. The plan would target the 22 countries, all poor, with the highest rates of infection.

That is an achievable goal, with minimal cost. About $1 billion a year is now spent on TB treatment, nearly 75 percent of that borne by those poor countries most affected.

The WHO plan employs the highly effective Daily Observed Treatment plan, to assure that the antibiotics are taken daily for six months. Inadequately treated or neglected, TB can develop drug-resistant strains that are more lethal and more costly to control.

Tuberculosis, which persists even in the United States, has been overshadowed by the resources and attention (and the cost debate) given to battling HIV/AIDS. True, TB is often contracted by those whose immune systems are weakened by AIDS. But TB is a separate, deadly disease. And it is curable.

The airborne, long-lasting TB germs, spread by coughing or sneezing, pose a worldwide threat not confined to the poorer countries. About 17,000 Americans were infected in 1999, and increasing international traffic heightens the domestic risk.

With antibiotics and a proven, inexpensive treatment regimen, the worldwide tuberculosis epidemic can be controlled. There should be no hesitation in supporting this crucial health campaign.

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