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Poverty brings back TB

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Issue 1743

19th Century disease returns

Poverty brings back TB

THE OUTBREAK of tuberculosis (TB) at a school in Leicester highlights the re-emergence of a disease once thought to be eradicated for good. But TB is making a comeback in Britain and around the world-causing death, misery and suffering.

In London 50 new cases of TB are diagnosed every week, and of these people two will die from the disease. In Britain a developed health service is a check on the spread of the disease. But across the world over two million people every year now die from TB. It is the leading cause of death for women of childbearing age, and some 70 million people are expected to die from TB over the next 20 years. In Britain much of the press has blamed the rise in TB on an increase in immigraton.

Tory shadow health secretary Liam Fox spoke of London as “the TB capital of Europe”, and implied asylum seekers are to blame for spreading the disease. This is a lie. The main cause of the TB resurgence is growing poverty and inequality. TB is caused by a bacteria, which can be carried by someone without developing into TB.

The main factors which weaken the immune system and increase the likelihood of TB developing are malnutrition, poor health conditions, poor sanitation, cramped living conditions and, more recently, HIV and AIDS. TB was rife in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The rise of industrial capitalism created unsanitary and cramped living and working conditions, poor nutrition and rudimentary healthcare in which the disease flourished. Even up to the 1950s there were 50,000 cases in Britain every year. In fact very few immigrants have the disease when they arrive in Britain. Those who develop it do so because of the deprivation they are forced to live in. As Gini Gleissberg from the East London TB Network says, “TB is classically a disease of poverty.

“It’s important to stress that the vast majority of people with TB in this country are born and raised here.”

A report by the authoritative British Medical Journal looked at TB in the London borough of Hackney, with a relatively high level of immigrants. It concluded that immigration was not the main reason for TB: “The national rise in tuberculosis affects only the poorest areas. Within one such area all residents (white and established ethnic minorities) were affected to a similar extent. The evidence indicates a major role for socio-economic factors in the increase in tuberculosis and only a minor role for recent immigration from endemic areas.”

Millions suffer market outbreak

FREE MARKET policies, privatisation and severe economic crisis have led to a huge resurgence of TB in Russia, dubbed an “epidemiological Chernobyl”. Over 30,000 people a year die of the disease, and it is spreading rapidly. The disease is most common among the poor-especially the homeless, malnourished and prisoners.

There are now over a quarter of a million TB cases a year in Eastern Europe. Poor health facilities and increasing poverty were the main reasons behind an outbreak of drug resistant TB, which killed 500 people in New York in the early 1990s.

The New York epidemic hit poor and black areas like Harlem the hardest. Studies of the epidemic showed it was homegrown and not due to immigration. The British Medical Journal pinpoints the reasons for the outbreak as the fact that “funding for tuberculosis control from the federal and state governments had been slashed in the 1970s.”

It also says that “neighbourhoods, particularly poor ones, were transformed by increases in overcrowding, inequality, homelessness and the spread of HIV.” “Even in affluent nations, when social disintegration is allied to a poor health infrastructure disastrous consequences result.” Cuts in health services exacerbated the rise of TB in Britain.

Health cuts mean Britain faces a lack of facilities and staff to deal with outbreaks. The British Thoracic Society says only 14 percent of health districts have the minimum staffing levels necessary to treat TB. There is a chronic shortage of TB nurses.

A study by Dr Andrew Hayward from the University of Nottingham last year found only just over a third of acute hospitals in Britain have negative pressure isolation rooms.

This is despite the fact that two years ago the Department of Health said anyone with TB should be treated in such facilities. For the last two years schools have stopped the BCG vaccination programme because there was a shortage of the vaccine. And privatisation through PFI will mean even fewer facilities and fewer nurses to deal with any future outbreaks of TB.

Cheap drugs a patent con

THE EUROPEAN Union has trumpeted a deal this week with the giant pharmaceutical companies to provide cheap drugs for diseases like AIDS and TB. The drug giants claim they have slashed the prices of AIDS drugs in recent weeks. These companies have only been forced to act because of international pressure against their inhumane actions, which sentence millions of the poorest people to die.

This price drop will barely dent the billions of profits made by companies like GlaxoSmithKline. But the drugs companies are determined to keep their monopoly on producing drugs and making profits on drugs for AIDS, TB, malaria and other deadly diseases.

The world’s 40 biggest drug firms are still pursuing a court case to stop the South African government producing cheaper drugs to treat AIDS. The drugs firms want to protect their patents on these drugs-and they are backed by Tony Blair.

The result will be the death and suffering of millions more of the world’s poorest people. At the moment drug treatment for TB is relatively cheap. Although even at a cost of $10 per head in poor countries, treatment remains too expensive for millions of people.

But the latest drugs to treat the new more resistant strain of TB-which accounts for more and more cases of TB-will be patented by the drug companies. New rules from the World Trade Organisation extend patent rights for 20 years.

World’s three biggest killers

TONY BLAIR and the other G8 group of world leaders promised action last July against the world’s three greatest killer diseases-TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS. But it is these governments and their neo-liberal, free market policies that have increased poverty and poor living conditions at the same time as slashing health services.

And it is the G8 leaders who have backed the giant pharmaceutical corporations’ bids to profit from producing the drugs which can cure the new more virulent strains of TB. TB ravages countries bled dry by debts owed to Western governments and banks, and where healthcare programmes have been decimated at the behest of institutions like the IMF.

Just 22 countries account for 80 percent of the world’s TB cases. They include Mozambique, Ethopia, South Africa and Nigeria-all of which have been under the hammer of debt repayments and austerity plans. TB has also been exacerbated by the huge rise in HIV and AIDS, particularly in Africa.

Globalise Resistance

THERE ARE two opportunities to voice our anger in the coming weeks and months. On 1 May New Labour is hosting a business conference on patents with representatives of GlaxoSmithKline and the other huge drugs firms. And on 20-22 July, in Genoa, Italy, the G8 world leaders will meet to push their neo-liberal agenda.

The Globalise Resistance umbrella group is organising protests at both. To find out more phone 020 8980 3005 or visit

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