THE number of people with the potentially fatal disease tuberculosis is on the rise in Oxfordshire.

Health bosses are nearing the end of a campaign to tackle the spread of the disease, which reached epidemic proportions in Victorian England.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection spread through inhaling droplets of saliva from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person.

TB mainly affects the lungs, but can spread to many parts of the body, including the bones and nervous system.

In 2006, there were 53 cases of the illness recorded in Oxfordshire, but last year that had reached 70.

That represents an increase of more than 30 per cent in six years.

Nationally, there are 14 cases of TB per 100,000 of the population, but in Oxford City, the incidence rate is more than 21 per 100,000. The highest infection rates nationwide are in Birmingham, Leicester and London.

Local health chiefs have attributed the rise over recent years to the increase of non-immunised immigrants coming from Asian and African countries where the disease is far more common, and settling in parts of Oxford and Banbury.

Angela Baker, NHS Oxfordshire’s consultant in Public Health, said it was also more common in densely populated areas.

She said: “It’s more prevalent in people who have come from Sub-Saharan areas and from South Asia.

“It is also more prevalent in places where people live together with immune suppressed diseases, such as HIV, or in people who are taking drugs which make you immune suppressed.”

She added: “For us it’s always a concern. It is very debilitating but treatable if caught early.”

Pharmacies across the city have been taking part in a campaign, which started in mid-July and finished on Saturday, to raise awareness of the symptoms.

Ms Baker said: “It’s about making sure people are aware of the symptoms and are really clued up on what they are looking for.”

A recent study by Oxford University researchers found tuberculosis is at least 34 times greater among the homeless than the general population.

Oxford has a significant homelessness problem – in December last year there were 144 households in temporary accommodation provided by the city council.