Britain is TB capital of Europe

Britain is the only country in Western Europe with rising rates of tuberculosis, and in London cases of the disease once dubbed "the white plague" have grown by nearly 50% since 1999, a commentary warned recently.

Britain has more than 9,000 cases of tuberculosis (TB) diagnosed a year and the problem is becoming particularly acute in the capital, which accounts for 40% of the nation's total diagnosed cases, wrote Alimuddin Zumla, a global TB expert from University College London.

The situation in London, he said, was reminiscent of outbreaks of multi-drug resistant TB in prisons in the United States in the 1990s - outbreaks that required a large financial investment to be brought under control.

Poverty-stricken areas at risk

TB - referred to as the white plague during Victorian times because sufferers' skin tone turned so pale - could come back with a vengeance in poverty-stricken areas.

"Poor housing, inadequate ventilation, and overcrowding - conditions prevalent in Victorian Britain - are causes of the higher TB incidence rates in certain London boroughs," Zumla said in a commentary published online by The Lancet.

He said that in Britain, as in all European countries, the disease was mainly concentrated in high-risk groups such as migrants, refugees, homeless people, drug users, prisoners and people infected with the HIV virus that causes Aids.

Highest level in 30 years

A report last month found that cases of tuberculosis in Britain reached their highest level for 30 years in 2009 with 9,040 cases, and the number of new drug-resistant TB cases had almost doubled in the past decade.

Zumla noted that the increase in the number of TB cases seen in Britain has largely been in non-UK born groups, but most of these were not in new migrants. Some 85% of cases born overseas had lived in Britain for two or more years and about half had lived here for five or more years - indicating that the disease is not being imported from elsewhere. - (Kate Kelland/Reuters Health, December 2010)

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