We don’t want to rank first in TBTuberculosis, a contagious bacterial infection believed to have disappeared long ago, is resurfacing. According to the latest data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Centers for Disease Control, the number of new TB patients in Korea hit 39,557 as of last year, the equivalent of 80.7 per 100,000. That’s almost five times more than the OECD average of 15 per 100,000. In 2010 alone, a total of 2,400 patients died of the disease, with five new patients cropping up every hour and six patients dying every day, in what amounts to the worst first attack rate and the highest death rate in the OECD.
Government statistics show that women aged between 20 and 24 are more vulnerable to the disease than men in the same age group: 95.3 versus 89.9 per 100,000. The Health Ministry should intensify medical checkups for the female population, including intensive education for them. The ministry also must take special care of senior citizens as the rapid increase of their population is one of the major reasons for the surging infection rates.
TB is a terrible illness as it is airborne. Studies say that one person is capable of infecting 10, which means there is no better way than reinforcing routine medical checkups, detecting patients and treating them. The problem is there are too many intractable tubercular bacteria which are resistant to drugs. Normally, TB is cured when patients take medicine for six months. But they must take a staggering number of tablets - 13 per dose at least - and in most of the cases, they are susceptible to harmful side effects. As a result, an increasing number of patients stop taking the medicine, which helps increase the number of tubercular bacteria that are resistant to drugs.
Therefore, patients have to take medicine until their TB is completely treated. Our Health Ministry has selected Jeju Island for a pilot operation from next month of the directly observed therapy system to check if patients take medicine according to doctors’ prescriptions. We urge the ministry to expand the project to the rest of the country as soon as possible.
At the same time, the government should order patients infected with drug-resistant tubercular bacteria to be hospitalized quickly so it can minimize their contacts with nonpatient groups, even by bearing the cost for their drugs, hospitalization and some of their living expenses. On the occasion of the World Tuberculosis Day on March 24, we must free ourselves from the disgraceful highest rate of TB per capita among OECD countries before it’s too late.