Drug-resistant tuberculosis now at record levels

18 MARCH 2010 - Geneva - In some areas of the world, one in four people with tuberculosis (TB) becomes ill with a form of the disease that can no longer be treated with standard drugs regimens, a World Health Organization (WHO) report says.

For example, 28% of all people newly diagnosed with TB in one region of north western Russia had the multidrug-resistant form of the disease (MDR-TB) in 2008. This is the highest level ever reported to WHO. Previously, the highest recorded level was 22% in Baku City, Azerbaijan, in 2007.

In the new WHO's Multidrug and Extensively Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis: 2010 Global Report on Surveillance and Response, it is estimated that 440 000 people had MDR-TB worldwide in 2008 and that a third of them died. In sheer numbers, Asia bears the brunt of the epidemic. Almost 50% of MDR-TB cases worldwide are estimated to occur in China and India. In Africa, estimates show 69 000 cases emerged, the vast majority of which went undiagnosed.

Tuberculosis programmes face tremendous challenges in reducing MDR-TB rates. But there are encouraging signs that even in the presence of severe epidemics, governments and partners can turn around MDR-TB by strengthening efforts to control the disease and implementing WHO recommendations.

Two regions in the Russian Federation, Orel and Tomsk, have achieved a remarkable decline in MDR-TB in about five years. These regions join two countries, Estonia and Latvia, which have reversed rising high rates of MDR-TB, ultimately achieving a decline. The United States of America and China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), have achieved sustained successes in controlling MDR-TB.

Progress remains slow in most other countries. Worldwide, of those patients receiving treatment, 60% were reported as cured. However, only an estimated 7% of all MDR-TB patients are diagnosed. This points to the urgent need for improvements in laboratory facilities, access to rapid diagnosis and treatment with more effective drugs and regimens shorter than the current two years.

WHO is engaged in a five year project to strengthen TB laboratories with rapid tests in nearly 30 countries. This will ensure more people benefit early from life-saving treatments. It is also working closely with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the international community on increasing access to treatment.

Link to the report [.pdf]