updated 3/23/2009 10:27:57 AM ET 2009-03-23T14:27:57

More money and better science are urgently needed to rein in new strains of tuberculosis that are tough or nearly impossible to treat, the World Health Organization announced Monday in China, where the disease has long been a leading killer.

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While TB rates in the U.S. are declining there’s still plenty of reason for worry about the disease. Drug-resistant strains are showing up in states with large immigrant populations and are becoming harder to treat.

Sometimes, patients start feeling better and interrupt their treatment, giving bacteria an opportunity to develop a defense against the medication.

Money is another problem. Funding for labor-intensive disease control programs is being cut in cities such as San Francisco, which has the highest TB rates in the country.

The World Health Organization is releasing its annual update on tuberculosis on Tuesday, which is also World TB Day, an event meant to raise awareness of a disease that despite being one of the world's oldest killers still claims the lives of more than 1.5 million people every year. About 9 million people are infected, most in Africa and Asia.

"Drug-resistant tuberculosis is a growing global public health threat. We are at a turning point. We need to address it," Dr. Cornelia Hennig, the WHO's TB program coordinator for China, said at a news briefing in Beijing.

The report comes a week before the start of an international conference in Beijing focusing on ways to deal with drug-resistant TB strains. India, China and Russia — the three countries with the world's highest number of drug-resistant TB cases — will participate.

Hennig said the spread of drug-resistant TB strains can be prevented by spending more on TB control programs and coming up with better medical tests and drugs.

Drug-resistance develops when patients are not treated properly or interrupt their treatment after they start feeling better, giving bacteria an opportunity to develop a defense against the medicines.

Multidrug-resistant TB, or MDR-TB, doesn't respond to at least two of the best anti-TB drugs. Extensively drug-resistant TB, known as XDR-TB, is virtually untreatable by remaining options.

"Our treatment options are very, very restricted. ... We almost have no weapon to treat XDR-TB," Hennig said. "Recognition that XDR is a threat is becoming more and more the message."

In 2007, there were an estimated 511,000 cases of multidrug-resistant TB in the world, resulting in more than 130,000 deaths, Hennig said, while about 30,000 people likely died from extensively drug resistant TB out of 50,000 cases.

In China, tuberculosis was the deadliest infectious disease for many years until last year, when AIDS became the top killer for the first time.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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