RETURN OF THE WHITE PLAGUE; It Was One of History's Great Plagues, Virtually Eradicated Here 20 Years Ago. Now TB, Whose Deathly Pale Victims Drown in Their Own Blood, Is Back with a Vengeance. Could Political Correctness Be to Blame?

Article excerpt

Byline: SUE REID


AT FIRST, the small red spot on the side of the four-year-old girl's neck looked like a pimple. But a week later, it was the size of a bird's egg.

Within two weeks, the ugly lump hidden under the girl's blonde hair was as big as a ping-pong ball.

According to a nurse who later treated Jenny in hospital: 'The doctor originally dismissed the spot as an "infected hair follicle". She was sent home with a tube of antiseptic. But, as the lump grew, she was referred to our hospital where a biopsy was carried out. The results astonished everyone.

She had tuberculosis.

'I had seen an open wound caused by TB only once before, when I was nursing at Mother Teresa's clinic for street children in Calcutta.

Now I was seeing it in Britain. The girl's mother believes her daughter must have caught the disease while on a London bus while on a dayout with her family.'

Tuberculosis was rapidly disappearing from Britain 20 years ago, thanks to better sanitation, improved nutrition, antibiotics and childhood inoculations. But now the disease - once known as the white plague because of the ghostly pallor of its victims - is reappearing.

This young girl had become another dreadful statistic. Coming from a middleclass Home Counties town, her parents found it hard to believe she could be one of the estimated 7,200 people in Britain who are found every year to be suffering from TB. Of these, 400 will die - some drowning in the blood of their own lungs.

Earlier this month, the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, sounded the alarm about the rising number of TB cases in Britain.

He pointed out that seven of every ten people with TB come from the ethnic minority population and almost two-thirds were born overseas.

Alarmingly, while levels of TB are falling in every other western European nation, the infection is spreading here as quickly as in the world's tuberculosis blackspots of Russia, Romania, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.

In some parts of inner-city London there are more sufferers per 100,000 of the population than in the world's most tuberculosis-ridden country, Brazil.

More disturbingly, a super-strain of TB, which is impervious to conventional medicines, has emerged. It can cost the NHS [pounds sterling]100,000 or more to treat each such patient.

A health worker at a London prison told me: 'I estimate one in 20 inmates has this dangerously virulent type of TB. They're supposed to wear masks over their faces, but most walk around with them hanging around their necks. We face the possibility of an epidemic.'

Meanwhile, one of this country's most experienced GPs, Dr David Shubhaker, who has a busy surgery near the East End and came to Britain from India 20 years ago, says: 'There's no doubt that tuberculosis is being fuelled by the increase in immigrants. It is clear that is the case and it is not racist to say so.

'Everyone arriving in Britain - whether a refugee or an incoming British holidaymaker from parts of the world where TB is virulent - should be screened before they enter the country. America and Australia have introduced mass screening. It is a system that works.'

In a shocking indictment of our health service, which up to 15 years ago had tuberculosis under control, Sir Liam Donaldson admitted: 'The disease has regained the upper hand.

Experience elsewhere has shown that the march of TB can be halted.

Our goal is to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, TB in this country.'

But the truth is that tuberculosis does not just stalk the poorer streets of London where, traditionally, newly arrived immigrants have set up their first homes in Britain. Patients with TB are being reported in the wealthiestareas of London, including Kensington and Chelsea, which had 36 new cases in 2002, Westminster with 73, and the City of London with two new victims. …