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Global Tuberculosis Cases Drop For First Time

Worldwide tuberculosis cases are declining annually for the first time, according to a report just out from the World Health Organization. Deaths from the disease have also sunk to the lowest level in a decade.

The number of people who fell ill with TB in 2010 dropped to 8.8 million after peaking at 9 million in 2005, WHO says. The number of TB deaths fell to 1.4 million after peaking at 1.8 million in 2003. The report used data from 198 countries.

One of the biggest reported successes comes out of China, which cut TB illnesses and deaths by 80 percent from 1990. Domestic investment and international collaboration have helped the TB-prone country reduce its cases.

Africa is the only region not on track to reach a 50 percent reduction in TB deaths by 2015. The Stop TB Partnership set a goal to halve the 1990 mortality rates by 2015. Africa accounts for 24 percent of all notified cases with a quarter of those sitting in South Africa.

WHO attributes the global declining numbers to the expanded efforts in large countries.

"In many countries, strong leadership and domestic financing, with robust donor support, has started to make a real difference in the fight against TB," said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, in a statement. "The challenge now is to build on that commitment, to increase the global effort - and to pay particular attention to the growing threat of multidrug-resistant TB."

Some 46,000 people were treated for multidrug-resistant TB in 2010. That's just 16 percent of the estimated population suffering from the strain. Several new drugs are in research trials, with results expected in 2012, but a lack of funding for research and development could jeopardize Stop TB Partnership's goal to end TB by 2050.

Although the share of domestic funding for TB is on the rise in affected countries, most low-income countries still rely on external funding. Globally, countries report a $1 billion funding gap for TB in 2012.

As of July 2011, 26 countries are using a rapid molecular test that accurately diagnoses TB and multidrug-resistant TB in 100 minutes. WHO endorsed the test in late 2010. Nearly 150 countries are eligible to purchase the kits at a reduced price.

About one-third of the global population is currently infected with the TB bacteria, but only a small percentage of them will ever become sick or infectious.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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