The number of cases of tuberculosis in the UK has rocketed to its highest level in 30 years, with the number of drug-resistant cases doubling in a decade, the Health Protection Agency has warned.

Cases of TB in the UK hit 9,040 last year, and while the proportion of drug-resistant cases remains relatively low, the number doubled from 206 in 2000 to 389 in 2009, with the incidence of multi-drug resistant disease also doubling from 28 to 58 over the same time frame.

In addition, this year 7% of new cases of the disease were resistant to isoniazid, a key first line drug in the treatment of TB, sparking concerns of a growing trend of drug resistance.

Drug resistant forms of the disease can be caused by certain ‘tougher’ strains of the bacteria, but can also result from inappropriate or incomplete treatment, and it is this that urgently needs to be addressed, the HPA said. 

Aside from the danger to patients, the significantly higher cost of treating resistant forms of TB could place a substantial burden on already stretched National Health Service resources, experts warn.

“Patients must ensure they take their full prescription as instructed and, most importantly, they must finish any course of treatment that has been prescribed,” stressed Dr Paul Cosford, executive director of Health Protection Services at the HPA.

TB is preventable and treatable but can be life threatening if left untreated, and indeed according to Office for National Statistics figures there were 334 deaths in England and Wales attributable to tuberculosis in 2008, equating to 3,312 years of life lost because of premature mortality from the disease.

“The key to reducing levels of TB is early diagnosis and appropriate treatment,” noted Dr Ibrahim Abubakar, head of TB surveillance at the HPA, and he stressed that “efforts to improve early diagnosis and control the spread of this infection must remain a priority and be increased in areas where prevalence is high”.