Drug-resistant tuberculosis in Britain is spreading, according to findings published on Friday that show the difficult-to-treat strains are often carried by travelers and immigrants.
The researchers found that the proportion of cases resistant to any first line drug had increased to 7.9 percent from 5.6 percent between 1998 and 2005. There was also a 0.9 percent increase in multi-drug resistance.
“The observed increases highlight the need for early detection, rapid testing of susceptibility to drugs, and improved treatment completion,” Michelle Kruijshaar, a researcher at Britain’s Health Protection Agency, and colleagues wrote in the British Medical Journal.
The data came out a month after another WHO report showed that TB cases that defy existing drugs were occurring globally at the highest rates ever, with nearly 490,000 cases in 2006. Parts of the former Soviet Union were particularly vulnerable.
[The British researchers] also said there were 8,000 reported tuberculosis cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2006, an increase possibly due to a rise of the disease among immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
Other researchers said better efforts to catch the disease in marginalized populations is key to stamping out the disease and forms that are resistant to drugs.
“Clearly there’s the concern of spread in the population, but in our experience, much of the resistant tuberculosis is found in patients who come from abroad, emphasizing the need for screening at the earliest possible opportunity,” said Geoffrey Pasvol, researcher at Imperial College London.
Public health officials are investigating an outbreak of tuberculosis at a Birmingham school, after 30 pupils tested positive for the infectious disease.
All pupils at Birchfield Independent School for Girls, in Beacon Hill, Aston, were screened after a girl and one of her relatives contracted TB last summer.
But the school, which teaches an Islamic curriculum, decided to screen its 200 pupils in February.
A spokesman for Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust confirmed two more girls developed the infectious form of the disease, prompting the school and health officials to test all pupils this month.
He said: “Thirty children returned positive skin tests.”
The girls are awaiting X-ray screening to determine the extent of the infection and will be treated at Birmingham Chest Clinic and the Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
The PCT spokesman added there was no reason for the wider community to be alarmed and those who have been in close contact will be screened for the infection.
None of the girls have attended school since the skin tests. Pupils who have developed the disease will undergo antibiotics.
The school, which sent letters to pupils’ parents this week, confirmed the outbreak but refused to comment further.
A Health Protection Agency spokeswoman urged parents not to panic, as “testing positive for TB and developing the disease are not the same thing”.
TB is caused by the bacteria mycobacterium tuberculosis, which can attack any part of the body but usually targets the lungs. It is airborne, often spread when infected patient coughs or sneezes.
The bacteria only becomes active if the immune system cannot stop it from growing, usually when weakened in some other way.
[Editors Note: See a not-unrelated recent story on Birmingham here.]