Drug-resistant tuberculosis a very real threat in the Pacific region

Health officials in the Pacific are concerned about two new strains of tuberculosis - multi drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) - both strains have been found to be resistant to the two most powerful drugs that have been used to treat tuberculosis (TB) for the past five decades.

According to Dr. Janet O'Connor, the head of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's Tuberculosis Section, in many poor countries TB is not properly treated and the Pacific area is extremely vulnerable to TB for cultural reasons and also because of limited resources.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) is an international organisation which provides technical assistance, policy advice, training and research services to 22 Pacific Island countries and territories in areas such as health, human development, agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

The services of the SPC are critical to the eight million people of the Pacific, whose remote locations and scant resources continue to present many challenges due to increasing populations, decreasing food security and the effects of climate change and the recession.

The SPC is the largest developmental organisation in the Pacific with around 350 staff and offices in Noumea, New Caledonia, Suva, Fiji Islands, and Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia and Dr. O'Connor says many are very close-knit communities, with poor health services, poor housing and overcrowding, where infectious diseases are transmitted very quickly.

According to new SPC data about 1,500 people have been infected with active tuberculosis in the Pacific region each year for the past three years even though the bacterial infection which usually affects the lungs is curable. There is concern that the new data indicates many cases in the region involve a drug-resistant strain.

Micronesia has the highest TB rate with 140 people per 100,000 infected but Melanesian countries have an average of 37 cases per 100,000, while Polynesian countries have 19.

Dr. O'Connor says TB is a huge burden for the region and health officials are alarmed by a rise of the drug-resistant strain which now affects a total of nine countries in the region - Papua New Guinea alone has as many as 900 cases a year.

Dr. O'Connor is concerned that this situation could escalate the number of cases of MDR-TB.

TB is a bacterial infection caused by a germ called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria usually attack the lungs, but they can also damage other parts of the body. TB spreads through the air when a person with TB of the lungs or throat coughs, sneezes or talks. If you have been exposed, you should go to your doctor for tests. You are more likely to get TB if you have a weak immune system.

Symptoms of TB in the lungs may include:

  • A bad cough that lasts 3 weeks or longer
  • Weight loss
  • Coughing up blood or mucus
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Fever and chills
  • Night sweats

If not treated properly, TB can be deadly. You can usually cure active TB by taking several medicines for a long period of time. People with latent TB can take medicine so that they do not develop active TB.

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