Geneva Tuberculosis has come back in a new, more deadly form to pose the disease's greatest threat to Europe since World War II, world health officials said Tuesday.
Drug-resistant strains of the disease are lurking just beyond the European Union's borders, in countries where AIDS blossomed following the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to U.N. and Red Cross health officials.
"The drug resistance that we are seeing now is without doubt the most alarming TB situation on the continent since World War II, and our message to EU leaders is: Wake up. Do not delay. Do not let this problem get further out of hand," said Markuu Niskala, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
The high levels of multidrug resistant tuberculosis in Baltic countries, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the emergence of a new, extremely drug-resistant strain of TB have led international health officials to create the "Stop TB Partnership in Europe" to fight the epidemic.
Tuberculosis, a respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing, is the world's deadliest infectious disease that is curable. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million people died from TB in 2004.
Of the 20 countries in the world with the highest rates of multidrug resistant tuberculosis, 14 are in "the European region," according to a recent global survey by the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. European countries also have the highest rate of extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis known as XDR-TB.
"TB has always been low on the European Union agenda. It's a mystery there has been so little concern in addressing the TB epidemic in Europe," said Michael Luhan, an official at the Geneva-based Red Cross federation.
In Europe, 50 people get sick with TB and eight people die of the disease every hour, said Pierpaolo de Colombani, a WHO tuberculosis expert. About 15 percent of all TB cases in Europe are multidrug resistant.
The rate of incidence of TB in the Western European countries that belonged to the EU before it enlarged in 2004 is 13 cases per 100,000 people every year. That number doubles in the 10 new EU members. It doubles again to 53 in Romania and Bulgaria and yet again to 98 in former Soviet republics.
But migration and EU expansion could change things. "Not a large number of cases are being imported into the EU from Eastern Europe but it's not necessarily going to stay that way with continued enlargement," Luhan said.
He said TB cases in London have been increasing every year for almost 10 years.