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In our opinion: Fighting tuberculosis

Published: Tuesday, April 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

A tuberculosis patient, wearing a cloth over his mouth, waits in front of boxes of medication at an Operation ASHA program center in New Delhi, India. Private companies, aid groups and the government have embarked on a flurry of innovation to modernize India's archaic anti-tuberculosis campaign and fight the spread of frightening new drug resistant strains threatening to cause a public health nightmare.

Associated Press, Kevin Frayer

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As Americans should have learned by now, bad things that happen in far-away lands can land unexpectedly on our shores if not addressed. That may well be the case some day with tuberculosis. For many years, this was a disease cured easily by drugs that cost little. Now, however, strains of it have morphed into a drug-resistant disease that is spread through the air.

South African mines are a hot spot for the disease. That nation's gold mining industry sees up to 7,000 new cases of tuberculosis each year for every 100,000 people, which is estimated to be the highest percentage of new cases in the world. Studies on the autopsies of former miners have found latent and undiagnosed strains of the disease in 90 percent of the bodies examined.

In much of Africa, TB is combining with the AIDS virus to form a huge health catastrophe. In a world where people travel quickly among continents, such a thing has the potential to spread quickly.

Health leaders in Africa met in Swaziland late last month along with leaders from international agencies. They have recommitted to a goal of reducing the number of tuberculosis cases by 2015 to half what they were in 1990. While progress has been made, the target remains far off. A statement from the Stop TB Partnership cited figures from the World Health Organization showing 600,000 people died from tuberculosis in Africa alone in 2011, which was 40 percent of the world's total.

The group in Swaziland will administer $120 million in new investment toward ending the problem. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has pledged hundreds of millions toward the fight against both tuberculosis and AIDS, as well as against Malaria. The Global Fund is the main international funding organization in such matters, channeling more than 80 percent of the international donations to fight TB.

In Africa, cultural and lifestyle choices exacerbate the HIV problem, but there isn't time to moralize. Too many people are suffering and dying, and they could be helped by available drugs. Drug-resistant strains of TB, meanwhile, must be stymied.

This isn't a good time to seek more money from Congress, with automatic budget cuts hitting important services. But Africa's health problems are an impediment to real economic progress in the region, and drug-resistant diseases could create a menace for the entire world. The African continent contains some of the world's most impoverished people. A little extra investment could go a long way toward ridding the world of a disease that has plagued people for too long.

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