• Reuters

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Health authorities launched an £11.5 million ($17.4 million) plan on Monday to tackle Britain’s persistent tuberculosis problem, seeking to eradicate the contagious lung disease.

Britain has one of the highest TB rates in Western Europe, with London known as the continent’s TB capital.

Rates in the United Kingdom are nearly five times those in the U.S. If current trends continue, England alone will have more TB cases than the whole of the U.S. two years from now.

“TB should be consigned to the past, and yet it is occurring in England at higher rates than most of Western Europe,” said Paul Cosford, a director at the government’s health agency, Public Health England. “This situation must be reversed.”

Often thought of as a disease of the past, when it was dubbed “the white plague” for rendering its victims pale and feverish, TB has stubbornly persisted in Britain. It occurs mainly in areas of poverty and deprivation.

The bacterial disease is hard to treat and contagious, passing on via the coughs and sneezes of an infected person.

In 2013, there were 7,290 cases reported in England, or 13.5 cases per 100,000 people. TB cases are concentrated in urban hot spots in London, Leicester, Birmingham, Luton, Manchester and Coventry.

PHE officials say TB clinics in London manage more cases a year than those in all other Western European capitals together.

Drug-resistant TB is also an increasing problem, with cases of multidrug-resistant TB rising from 28 cases in England in 2000, to 68 in 2013.

PHE’s plan is to work with the National Health Service to target the most vulnerable people, improving access to screening, testing and treatment services as well as outreach programs such as “Find and Treat” mobile health units.

Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s medical director, said the NHS would focus its £10 million contribution on screening and treatment.