Inadequate laboratory facilities in Asia and the Pacific are fuelling the spread of drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, the World Health Organisation said Wednesday.
Many countries lack basic laboratory capacity to monitor and manage multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, the WHO said in a statement released from its Western Pacific regional headquarters in Manila
The WHO said less than one percent of multi-drug resistant TB cases were confirmed by a laboratory and officially reported in the region.
In 2006 only 600 of the estimated 150,000 drug resistant TB cases in East Asia and the Pacific were officially notified by a "quality-assured laboratory," the statement said.
Undetected and untreated, a TB patient can infect 10 to 15 people a year "simply by coughing or sneezing" and the disease can be spread by passengers travelling on aircraft, the WHO said.
"The spread of multi-drug resistant-TB is every TB programme's nightmare. One case can take up to two years to treat with drugs that have serious side effects and cost 100 times more than the regular regimen of drugs," it said.
"Outbreaks of multi-drug resistant TB are going unnoticed constantly," said WHO regional director Shigeru Omi.
"We are worried this silent epidemic could set us back years. We could lose the gains made in recent years," he said in the statement.
A recent WHO report based on surveys from 81 countries found multi-drug resistant TB is spreading faster and is more widespread than previously believed.
The WHO said Cambodia and the Philippines have only three laboratories each able to diagnose multi-drug resistant TB.
"Countries need to do more than upgrade laboratories," said Pieter Van Maaren, WHO regional adviser for tuberculosis and leprosy.
"Laboratories have long been neglected, suffering from a shortage of funds, trained personnel and quality assurance systems."
Nearly a half million new cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis occur each year worldwide, or around five percent of the nine million new cases in total, the WHO said last month.