As Rare Disease Day launches, figures show Tower Hamlets is still one of the worst affected places in the country for the killer infection tuberculosis.
Dr Ibrahim Abubakar, head of TB surveillance Health Protection Agency, warned today that citizens and healthcare providers must not be complacent about the disease.
Tower Hamlets has saw a rise in TB cases between 2009 and 2010 even as UK-wide cases declined by 4.9%, according to HPA figures.
Abubakar said: “While the decline we are seeing in the incidence of tuberculosis after nearly two decades of increasing rates is encouraging, we’ll need to assess the trends over the next few years to see whether this is a true reversal. “
“In the meantime, efforts to strengthen TB control should be continued and we should not become complacent.”
Of the 153 cases in 2010, 65% were males and only 21 were UK born, the rest being mostly of Bangladeshi and black-African origin.
Julian Surey, a nurse at Tower Hamlets Tuberculosis Service, told the Jakarta Globe that language barriers and the isolation of communities often prevented victims from getting the support to see them through difficult courses of strong antibiotics.
Many patients were homeless, said Surey, making it difficult to ensure they follow treatments.
TB is a bacterial infection spread through inhaling tiny droplets of saliva from the coughs and sneezes of an infected person. The infection is treatable with a six month drug regime, but side-effects like vomiting and liver complications make it hard to stomach.
Worse, health officials worldwide are now seeing the emergence of drug-resistant strains of the disease, which has been found in human corpses thousands of years old.
Dr Sarah Anderson, an expert in TB trends for the HPA in London, told EastLondonLines that London’s links with countries where TB is more common, like “parts of Africa and India”, contribute to its high figures, along with pervasive deprivation.
“TB is largely confined to a number of specific groups who are at a higher risk of contracting the infection. These include the homeless, drug and alcohol abusers, prisoners, those with HIV infection, as well as some non-UK born groups because of their links with countries where TB is much more common.”
But she stressed: “the vast majority of migrants to the UK do not have active TB.”
She said the greatest risk is to people who live together in the same household – because the disease tends to spread “close, prolonged contact”, making it more likely to move within communities rather than between them.
Rare Disease day was launched by non-government patients’ alliance EURODIS in 2008, including 56 countries by 2011. The group represents victims of rare diseases across Europe.
According to EURORDIS, while the diseases are rare, they affect more than 60 million people in United States and Europe alone.
Alastair Kent, Director at health non-profit Genetic Alliance, said: “Because there are so many rare diseases, they aren’t actually uncommon. There is a really significant problem and most of them are incurable. Rare Disease Day is a way of raising the profile, making families feel less isolated.
“This day is about solidarity, visibility, putting pressure on the NHS and the government.”
A disease is considered ‘rare’ by the European Union when it affects less than one in 2000 citizens. Between 5000 and 7000 diseases have been identified to date and over 80% are genetically caused.
Anderson warned: “It is important that everyone is aware of the symptoms of TB, which include a prolonged cough, fevers and weight loss. Greater awareness can mean the condition is diagnosed and treated much faster.”