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Outbreak of deadly tuberculosis strain is a 'disaster'

PETER MICHAEL |The Courier-Mail (Brisbane)

Catherina AbrahamA YOUNG WOMAN FROM Daru has become a medical refugee in Cairns after contracting a deadly variant of tuberculosis.

Catherina Abraham, 20, is one of six confirmed cases and the first in a potential wave of medical refugees fleeing an outbreak of the incurable form of the illness, known as XDR-TB (Extensively Drug Resistant TB).

Australian and Papua New Guinean authorities are trying to contain XDR-TB to the shanty towns of Daru, near the mouth of the Fly River.

But TB medical experts warn the fresh outbreak of a highly contagious mutated form of TB is a "public health disaster" likely to spread into the Australian population within five years.

"It is an airborne disease," said Ms Abraham, speaking to The Courier-Mail from her hospital bed in an isolation ward at Cairns Base Hospital. "You feel sick, dizzy, tired, short of breath, full of coughing."

She used to work at a food store in Daru before a friend in Australia sponsored her tourist visa and airfares to make the 1,300km cross-border mercy dash from Daru to Cairns via Port Moresby.

She has been in isolation in hospital for five months, undergoing radical treatment and is likely to remain for the next two years.

XDR-TB is estimated to cost between $500,000 and $1 million a patient, with a low cure rate and a very high death rate.

"Before she died, my schoolfriend passed it to me," said Ms Abraham, whose weight fell below 40kg.

"She was coughing. It spreads through the air."

If Ms Abraham was to return home she would be dead within a month, her doctors say.

One person dies every two hours of TB in PNG. Patients with other illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cholera or malaria are most at risk.

Respiratory specialist and TB expert Dr Steve Vincent said the latest outbreak of the mutated XDR-TB was a public health disaster, likely to cost billions.

"It is inevitable it will spread into the Australian population," Dr Vincent said. "Patients get profound weight loss, night sweats, coughing, then they fade out and die."

Dr Graham Simpson, another TB specialist, said: "Anything we do is too little, too late. This outbreak is what we have been worried about for years."

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