The number of tuberculosis cases in the United States increased last year, the first time they’ve risen since 1992, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Thursday.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported an uptick in the incidence of the airborne disease, which is the No. 1 infectious killer in the world.
Overall, tuberculosis cases rose to 9,563 in the U.S. in 2015, which is 142 more than were reported in 2014. Meanwhile, the per-capita rate has plateaued at three infections per 100,000 people.
“The leveling-off means that we’re not moving towards TB elimination,” said Dr. Philip LoBue, who runs the CDC’s Division of Tuberculosis Elimination. “It’s at a low level, one of the lowest levels in the world, but our goal is to eliminate TB.”
David Bryden, the TB advocacy officer at the nonprofit Results, hopes the gravity of these new numbers spurs more funding and more attention for a disease that is often forgotten in the U.S.
“The increase in numbers may seem small,” Bryden said. “But this could be the beginning of a resurgence.”
Donna Wegner, executive director of the National Tuberculosis Controllers Association, said the rise in cases needs to drive a rapid increase in funding to combat TB across the country.
“The data trends support a conclusion that we have reached the limit of what can be done with current resources,” she told The Huffington Post. “The increase should be seen as the failure of our legislators to adequately fund TB prevention efforts in the US.”
In an era of limited budgets, local and state health departments often struggle to deal with tuberculosis outbreaks. Isolating patients, tracing their contacts and ensuring adequate treatment are expensive.
Cases of drug-resistant TB present an even greater challenge. A single patient with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis can cost over $150,000 to treat, which can seriously tax the budget of a state health department. In 2014, there were 91 cases of MDR-TB in the U.S.
Tuberculosis kills 1.5 million people a year globally. But there is a $1.4 billion shortfall in the worldwide budget for treatment and a $1.3 billion funding gap for research on the disease, according to the World Health Organization’s 2015 Global Tuberculosis Report.
While most cases are curable with proper treatment, many TB medications are decades old, and treatment can take six to nine months. In multidrug-resistant cases, treatment can drag on for several years and come with side effects like serious hearing loss, depression or even psychosis.
For more on multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, read this special report from The Huffington Post.
“It’s just crazy that people are still taking medications that were developed 50 years ago or more. We should be beyond this in this day and age,” Bryden said. “We still have people in the U.S. dying of this. That’s just an outrage.”
“I think we need to break out of the mindset that this is something that happened in the 19th century or happened to our grandparents,” Bryden said. “This is something that happens today.”
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