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China fights growing tuberculosis problem

More than two billion people, or a third of the world population, are infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB).Tuberculosis killed 1.8 million people worldwide last year, up from 1.77 million in 2007. It is one of three main diseases that are closely linked to poverty, Aids and malaria are the others. With nearly all TB infections carriers show no symptoms and they are not infectious. But one in 10 people will get sick with active TB, mostly because of a weakened immune system.

China, which has the world's second largest tuberculosis problem after India, is battling against drug-resistant forms of the disease spread by coughs and sneezes. When TB patients don’t follow treatment guideline properly and take substandard drugs or stop treatment too early they become drug-resistant and cost more to treat.Because he couldn’t afford it, Liu Zhongwu, a stonecutter working in southern China stopped taking his TB medicine half-way through the standard six-month course in 2007. "Even though one or two drugs were free, I had to pay 500 yuan (£46) a month for other drugs (to reduce side effects) and the side effects were bad, I suffered terrible gastric pain and had to stop work, I didn't even have energy to walk," he told Reuters news service. This is exactly the type of thing health experts are trying to stop because if the TB bacteria is not fully eliminated, it can mutate, and return later, resistant to the handful of drugs that can fight the disease.

Drug-resistant TB is a big drain on China's health budget because it is a lot harder and more expensive to treat. Patients need to take drugs for as long as two years and the worst type of TB, for which there is no cure, kills one out of every two patients. "If there are more drug-resistant cases, the cost of TB treatment will rise by a lot, that's for sure. With drug resistance, we can't use first-line drugs and other drugs cost a lot more," said Lin Yan, director of the China office of the non-profit International Union Against TB and Lung Disease. "When these patients infect others, the others will get drug-resistant TB. That increases the cost of treating that person and increases the chances of him not recovering." Right now there are 4.5 million TB cases in China and each year 1.4 million people fall ill with the disease. In 2008, TB killed 160,000 people in China, according to figures from the World Health Organization. TB killed 1.8 million people across the world in 2008, or a person every 20 seconds. 

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children