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By Scott Bobb
Johannesburg
12 November 2007

Experts on lung disease meeting in South Africa are warning the world could face a tuberculosis crisis if drug resistant strains of TB are not contained and if TB testing does not become a regular part of HIV treatment. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our bureau in Johannesburg.

Three thousand experts from 100 countries ended a five-day conference in Cape Town warning that urgent measures are needed to address the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis and its growing presence among victims of HIV/AIDS.

Petrus Van Nell, 68, a victim of Mesothelioma an Asbestos related form of cancer, looks at his hands, as he lies in his bed in Northern Cape town of Prieska, South Africa (File Photo)
Petrus Van Nell, 68, a victim of Mesothelioma an Asbestos related form of cancer, looks at his hands, as he lies in his bed in Northern Cape town of Prieska, South Africa (File Photo)
One-and-one-half million people died of tuberculosis last year. Nine million new cases were reported. Nearly one-half million were resistant to the main anti-TB drugs. A fraction of these, 400 in South Africa, were resistant to almost all drugs known to science and nearly always fatal.

One of the conference organizers, Nils Billo of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, said at the same time no new TB drug has been developed in more than 40 years.

"It is urgent to find new drugs. It is urgent to find new vaccines. It is a scandal that governments are not putting more money into this," said Billo. "And one of the reasons this is happening is that many companies are not really interested to invest in poor countries. Tuberculosis is a disease of the poor unfortunately and companies hesitate to invest in drug development [there]."

He said wealthy nations should provide more funding while developing nations should focus on prevention measures such as education and early diagnosis.

HIV sufferers are particularly susceptible to tuberculosis. One-third of the world's 40 million people with HIV also have tuberculosis. In South Africa 60 percent are infected with both diseases. Their death rate is five times that of people infected with tuberculosis alone.

Billo says as a result treatment programs should be administered together and victims of one infection should be routinely tested for the other.

"It is important that people who come for a TB diagnosis, if they get tested positive for tuberculosis they should immediately or at the same time get tested for HIV. I think that is a very important point that has not yet been implemented programmatically in most of the countries," added Billo.

The experts say tobacco, another major cause of lung disease, is also placing strain on health care systems.

Billo says the five million annual tobacco-related deaths are expected to double in the next 23 years and developing nations will be hardest hit.

"So it is critical that countries ratify the framework convention on tobacco control and that they implement the major tobacco control measures," said Billo.

These measures include higher taxes on tobacco products, enforcement of smoke-free zones and bans on tobacco advertisements.

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