Tuberculosis has become the single biggest killer of young women in the world, said a World Health Organization study released this month.

WHO figures presented to the first international meeting on TB and gender showed unprecedented levels of infection and death among women aged 15 to 44 with over 900 million suffering from the infectious lung disease world-wide.In 1998 alone, an estimated one million plus women will die of TB and 2.5 million others get sick from the airborne disease which is usually considered more common among elderly men.

"This makes TB the single leading cause of deaths among women of reproductive age," WHO said in a statement at the end of the two-day meeting in Gothenburg, western Sweden.

TB now accounts for 9 percent of deaths worldwide among women aged 15 to 44, compared with war, which accounts for 4 percent, HIV 3 percent and heart disease 3 percent.

Last year 1.2 million women died of TB with 449,000 deaths in South and Southeast Asia, 316,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, 242,000 in East Asia and the Pacific, 66,000 in North and South America and 48,000 in Europe.

An earlier WHO study said 2.9 million people died of TB in 1997, making it the fifth most common cause of death with coronary heart disease and strokes the first with 12 million victims.

Dr. Paul Dolin of WHO's global TB program, said these high levels of death and infection among women were going unnoticed.

"Yet the ripple effect on families, communities and economies will be felt long after a woman has died," Dolin told the meeting, organized by the Nordic School of Public Health, Sweden's Umea University and the Karolinska Institute.

WHO said the type of people who suffer TB varies according to the status of the country.

In industrialized countries, one quarter of all TB cases occur in the over-65s, compared with only 10 percent in developing countries such as in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In the developing world, TB is mainly a disease of young adults with 60 percent of all cases among men and women or reproductive age.

Women are more susceptible to fall sick once infected with TB than men of the same age.

Women in this age group are also at greater risk from HIV infection and a U.N. AIDS study in March this year found 33 percent of new cases of TB were attributed to HIV infection.

"Among leading threats to women's health, TB may be the most affordably controlled," said Professor Vinod Diwan of the Nordic School of Public Health.

"Enormous losses to this disease have prompted a search for factors such as gender that may help us to better understand and better control the epidemic."

TB spreads through the air when infected people cough or sneeze. Almost all TB deaths can be prevented.

The purpose of the meeting was to draw up an agenda for research into biological, epidemiological, social and cultural differences in TB occurrence in men and women, and their access to the TB treatment strategy DOTS which follows a patient through every step of treatment to ensure high cure rates.