Australia and Vietnam are working together to tackle tuberculosis (TB) in Vietnam, which has one of the highest rates of the disease in Asia.
An initial US$1.3 million has been allocated for a partnership project in which Vietnam is receiving advice from Australian TB experts to apply at all levels of its healthcare system.
Although the number of cases of TB has been declining worldwide since 2006, Vietnam's rate has been steady since the late 1990s. According to the WHO, the prevalence of the disease is 334 per 100,000 people, 20 per cent higher than the average for South-East Asia, and roughly double that of China.
Vietnam needs to combine good treatment with preventive screenings of at-risk populations to keep the incidence down, according to Greg Fox, a Vietnam-based researcher with the Centenary Institute in Sydney, Australia.
"We need to combine a number of different strategies," said Fox, who is also project coordinator at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Australia. "One is not going to be enough."
Since 2010, Australian researchers have been screening roughly 15,000 family members of those afflicted with TB in eight Vietnamese provinces. Families with members afflicted with TB were shown to have infection rates two to three times higher than that of the general Vietnamese population.
Fox recommends that outreach work targets other at-risk populations, such as people living with HIV/AIDS and prisoners in Vietnamese jails, noting that infection rates are highest in Vietnam's southern provinces, affecting the poorest the most.
Social stigma prevents people living with the disease from seeking treatment, he told SciDev.Net.
Vietnamese state media have quoted doctors as saying that about seven per cent of people infected with TB nationwide do not come in for treatment. Others do not take precautions, such as using individual rather than communal utensils during meals.
Nguyen Viet Nhung, deputy head of Vietnam's National Tuberculosis Program, said he hopes to see positive results from the partnership within four years. But he emphasised that its success will partly depend on how much funding it receives.