Growing concern over tuberculosis in Malaysia

PETALING JAYA: Foreign workers are among the major causes for the increase in tuberculosis (TB) cases in Malaysia, but they are not the sole cause, according to the Health Ministry.

The rise in non-communicable diseases and the country's "greying population", it said, were also contributing factors for the rising trend.

Health director-general Datuk Seri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said foreign workers were among the "noticeable causes" and had contributed to between 12 per cent and 16 per cent of TB cases in Malaysia since 2008.

However, he said, those with conditions such as diabetes mellitus, an impaired immune system, chronic obstructive lung disease, the elderly and smokers were at a higher risk of getting infected with TB.

"Living in cramped, squalid conditions also increases the risk of TB transmission and this can be seen among both local and foreign migrants in the country," he said.

A greying population is defined as a population in which the number of elderly people is increasing relative to the number of younger persons.

This is a global phenomenon as people are living longer due to better nutrition, healthcare and economic well-being.

He said there were about nine million new TB cases each year and close to two million deaths globally because of the disease.

"Malaysia is classified as an intermediate burden, with tuberculosis at fewer than 100 cases for every 100,000 population," he said.

"We are witnessing a rising trend - from 15,912 cases in 2003 to 24,711 cases last year. For the past five years, there has been an increase of between 6 per cent to 10 per cent yearly."

Doctors have previously raised the alarm over reports that almost half of the foreign workers bound for Malaysia who had failed their health examinations were infected with TB.

Workers who fail their health checks are immediately sent back to their countries, but there are a few million illegal foreign workers who have entered the country without having any health checks done.

The ministry, he said, was increasing its resources on advocacy, upgrading infrastructure, laboratory equipment, training, and scaling up its screening activities.

He advised those having chronic cough for two weeks or more, especially those with night sweats and weight loss, to immediately alert their doctors and ask for a TB screen.