By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Rates of tuberculosis (TB) in Britain are among the highest in western Europe and London is struggling to shed its status as the "TB capital" of the region, according to data released on Wednesday.
If trends of infection continue, within two years Britain is likely to have more new cases of TB each year than the United States, according a report from the government's health agency, Public Health England (PHE).
More than 8,750 TB cases were reported in Britain in 2012, or around 14 per 100,000 population, slightly fewer than in 2011 but still enough to put it among the worst-hit countries in its region.
"TB remains a critical public health problem, particularly in parts of London and among people from vulnerable communities, said Paul Cosford, PHE's director for health protection.
He said controlling the contagious and often drug-resistant lung disease was now one of the key priorities for PHE, which is developing a stronger national approach to be implemented in a few months' time.
"We are determined to see a sustained reduction in TB and will work tirelessly to support local partners in those areas where the burden is greatest," he said in a statement.
Often misconstrued as a disease of the past or one restricted only to marginalized communities, TB in fact inflicts annual direct health costs of more than 500 million euros ($670 million) on European governments, and costs another 5.3 billion euros in productivity losses.
The bacterial infection usually affects the lungs, and s spreads when someone who has TB coughs or sneezes.
According to the PHE report, London had the main burden of TB infections in Britain in 2012 with 3,426 cases - almost 40 percent of the national total.
"Despite considerable efforts to improve prevention, treatment and control, TB incidence in the UK remains high compared to most other Western European countries," it said.
Almost three-quarters of cases were in migrants from places such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where TB is common. Although the proportion of TB cases resistant to one of several drugs was low at under 2 percent, drug-resistant TB "remains a problem", the report added.
"TB is a preventable and treatable condition, but, if left untreated, can be life-threatening," said Lucy Thomas, PHE's head of TB surveillance.
She said good access to TB screening and diagnostic services for new immigrants was essential to stem the spread of the disease.
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(Editing by Kevin Liffey)