CONCERN about the potential impact of drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) has prompted a meeting between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Papua New Guinea government around how to respond to the public health crisis.

WHO regional director Shin Young-soo met Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in September to discuss responses to the disease and the launch of a campaign targeting specific areas, including Port Moresby and the Gulf and Western provinces.

Health minister Michael Malabag called for an emergency meeting of the governors of the Gulf and Western provinces and the National Capital District (NCD) in October in response to escalating concerns about the disease

Mr Malabag said NCD had been identified as the hot spot for TB with consistently high TB notification rates of four times the national average.

“The NCD contributes to 25 per cent of the country’s TB burden, despite being home to only five per cent of the country’s population,” Mr Malabag said.

He said from the beginning of 2013, 128 drug resistant TB cases had been noted in NCD, of which 47 patients were on treatment, seven had died and 45 were yet to be traced.

“At the end of September 2014, two extensively-drug resistant TB cases were reported in NCD,” Mr Malabag said.

He said the treatment course of drug resistant TB cases was substantially more costly and laborious than drug-susceptible TB, which have higher rates of treatment failure and mortality.

“At present, drug resistant TB poses a major threat to an already weak TB control program in NCD,” he said.

“If this threat is not addressed immediately, NCD will be confronted with huge political, structural and economic constraints and this situation will worsen.”

The governement’s awareness campaign would look to address the primary cause of drug-resistant strains of the disease – patients stopping taking anti-TB drugs before the end of treatment.

“Most people with tuberculosis are cured by a strictly followed, six-month drug regimen, which intake is fully supervised from the first to the last day of treatment,” a government statement said.

“The TB treatment is provided free of charge at government and church-operated health facilities across the country.”

The awareness campaign asks people to be aware of the symptoms of the disease and seek help.

23,000 people were diagnosed with TB each year and the number was increasing, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said.

“TB is a very concerning issue for our country,” Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said when launching the awareness campaign.

Mr O’Neill said the government had increased its investment in infrastructure and equipment for the health sector which would help medical workers respond to the threat.

“That is the reason why the government is increasing resources, funding and manpower in the support that we give to contain, control and eventually eliminate TB cases,” Mr O’Neill said.

“We are aware that the disease is preventable and also curable and many of you know that if we continue to adhere to medicines and treatment plans given by doctors, we can be able to treat this once and for all.

The Prime Minister also cited the potentially “enormous” economic burden a significant outbreak of the disease could place on the country

The awareness campaign was running alongside activities to combat the spread of TB at a cost of up to K1 million, the government said

“This will make people aware of essential information relating to TB that is often overlooked leading to contraction of the disease, as well as increased potential for further transmission, especially to family members,” a government statement said.

The statement said PNG ranked second after Cambodia in terms of estimated tuberculosis prevalence, TB incidence, and TB mortality, in the Western Pacific.

“As per WHO’s Global TB report 2013, 25,000 people developed TB in PNG, and at any given time in the year, PNG has approximately 39,000 active TB cases.

The government estimates that around 3,900 people die of TB in PNG every year.

But it said that the responsibility for diagnosis and treatment did not lie with the government alone.

“People with TB signs and symptoms will need to go to a health facility for check-up and if diagnosed with TB, will need to finish the entire TB treatment that will be prescribed,” the statement said.

“This will take a minimum of six months, but in some cases treatment may need to be longer.”

Symptoms of TB may include a bad cough lasting for at least three weeks, chest pains, coughing up blood and phlegm, fatigue, weight and appetite loss, chills, and night sweats.