CHINA faces a "serious epidemic" of drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB), according to the first nationwide estimate of the size of the problem there, said a United States-published study on Wednesday.
"In 2007, one third of patients with new cases of TB and one half of patients with previously treated TB had (the) drug-resistant disease," said the study - funded by the Chinese Ministry of Health - in the New England Journal Of Medicine.
Additionally, the prevalence of multi-drug-resistant (MDR) TB in new cases (5.7 per cent) was nearly twice the global average, said the study.
Using World Health Organization figures as a basis for comparison, "China has the highest annual number of MDR TB cases in the world - a quarter of the cases worldwide", it added.
"China has a serious epidemic of drug-resistant TB."
The data came from a survey of more than 4,600 Chinese people, who were recently diagnosed or treated for TB.
Patients for the study were treated at local TB clinics, not hospitals, and the survey was conducted by the National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control.
According to an accompanying editorial by Johns Hopkins University's infectious-disease specialist, Dr Richard Chaisson, the growth of drug-resistant TB presents an "enormous challenge".
Even more concerning was the finding that most of the 110,000 drug-resistant cases involved patients who were newly diagnosed with the disease, suggesting that the virulent bacteria are being transmitted from person to person, and not developing solely as a result of a person stopping treatment prematurely.
In China, over one million new TB infections occur each year - a large chunk of the estimated nine million new cases worldwide annually.
Known formally as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, TB spreads through the air when infected people cough up bacteria. TB kills about 1.5 million people worldwide each year.
Often, it can be cured with antibiotics but, sometimes, patients do not follow the entire regimen of treatment - which can encourage the development of resistant strains.
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