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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 10:37 GMT
Sharp rise in tuberculosis cases
TB bacterium
TB can be deadly
Cases of tuberculosis (TB) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland rose by 10.8% in 2005, figures show.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) recorded 8,113 cases during the year, compared to 7,321 in 2004.

Levels of TB have been increasing year on year in the UK since the late 1980s, but this is the largest single year increase since 1999.

London recorded 3,479 cases, up from 3,129 in 2004. The North West recorded the biggest proportional increase.

The highest proportion of cases - 38% - were reported among people from an Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic background.

Fever and night sweats
Persistent cough
Losing weight
Blood in the phlegm or spit

Dr John Watson, head of the HPA's Respiratory Diseases Department, said the largest increase was seen among patients not born in the UK, who accounted for 5,310 cases.

Levels of TB in the UK-born population remained stable

However, he said only 22% of these non-UK born patients in 2005 arrived in the UK during the past two years.

"This suggests that the increase is not a result of a large number of individuals arriving recently with TB but rather a combination of TB disease developing in individuals who may have been infected for some time and new infections acquired in the UK, or as a result of travel to other countries where TB is common."

2000 - 6,323
2001 - 6,652
2002 - 6,861
2003 - 6,970
2004 - 7,321
2005 - 8,113

TB was the biggest killer in the UK in the 19th century.

Centre for Infections director Professor Peter Borriello said it was a "bogeyman that was returning".

He said: "An increase of this magnitude over the course of one year is a concern, and as a result we will be monitoring the situation closely over the next few years.

"TB disease is a preventable and treatable condition. The key to reducing levels is through early diagnosis and treatment of the infection.

"To enable this it is crucial that we raise awareness amongst both the public and health professionals of the symptoms of TB.

"Once cases are diagnosed, it is crucial to trace their close contacts to ensure they are also not infected and to also ensure that prescribed courses of treatment are completed."

Action needed

Dr John Moore-Gillon, chairman of the British Thoracic Society Joint TB Committee and president of the British Lung Foundation said the situation was "urgent".

Fever and night sweats
Persistent cough
Losing weight
Blood in the phlegm or spit

"We need to confront the problem of TB now and ensure that enough resources are made available on the ground to tackle the increasing burden of TB in Britain," he said.

The government published a TB Action Plan in 2004, but Dr Moore-Gillon said steps were needed to ensure tackling the disease was made a priority at local level.

He said in some areas TB specialist nurse posts were being left vacant or downgraded to save money.

TB Alert chairman Paul Sommerfeld said the emergence of drug resistant strains of TB posed a particular threat.

"UK TB services need to be strengthened and not allowed to weaken."

Screening programme

The Home Office said the first phase of a screening programme was introduced last year.

People applying to come to the UK for six months or more must get a certificate giving them the all clear from an accredited clinic in their country.

Also anyone appearing ill or complaining of illness is examined at some airports. Heathrow has three X-ray machines and Gatwick one.

However, Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said TB was a global problem that could not be solved by countries in isolation.

She said: "Our TB Action Plan set out our plan of attack in England. We know that the best way to ensure a good TB service is through local commissioning.

"Together with the HPA, we will be providing the NHS with a comprehensive toolkit to help them commission services which meet their local circumstances.

"We cannot be complacent about this issue. There are no short-term solutions to tackling TB - this will need long-term, concerted action."

08 Feb 03 |  Medical notes

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