Global treatment and diagnosis of Tuberculosis (TB) cases witnessed a drastic decline in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the world.
According to new data released by ‘Stop TB Partnership,’ the pandemic has eliminated 12 years of progress in the global fight against Tuberculosis.
The data, released ahead of the 2021 World TB day, shows that nine countries representing 60 per cent of the global TB burden saw a drastic decline in diagnosis and treatment of infections in 2020, ranging from 16 per cent to 41 per cent.
These countries include Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Tajikistan, and Ukraine.
“In these countries, TB diagnosis and enrolment on treatment in 2020 declined by a total of 1 million, ranging from 16 per cent- 41 per cent (an average of 23 per cent) in individual countries,” Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership, Lucica Ditiu, said during a virtual press briefing on Thursday.
Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) that most often affect the lungs.
TB is spread from person to person through the air. When people with TB cough, sneeze or spit, they propel the TB germs into the air. A person needs to inhale only a few of these germs to become infected.
Many countries were making steady progress in tackling TB before the COVID-19 pandemic which has already infected over 100 million people worldwide, according to a 2020 global report by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The report indicates that disruptions in services caused by the pandemic have led to further setbacks in progress already made against the disease.
The pandemic has disrupted human activities and overshadowed other health issues across the globe.
Although TB is one of the vaccine-preventable killer diseases which is also curable, statistics from the WHO show that every year, around 245,000 Nigerians die from TB, and about 590,000 new cases occur (of these, around 140,000 are also HIV-positive).
Every March 24, World Tuberculosis Day is celebrated to raise public awareness about the devastating health, social and economic consequences of TB, and to step up efforts to end the global TB epidemic.
Ms Ditiu said efforts made in the past twelve years to eliminate tuberculosis have been reversed by the pandemic.
“Twelve years of impressive gains in the fight against TB, including in reducing the number of people who were missing from TB care, have been tragically reversed by another virulent respiratory infection,” she said.
“In the process, we put the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in jeopardy. I hope that in 2021 we buckle up and we smartly address, at the same time, TB and COVID-19 as two airborne diseases with similar symptoms.”
She said data emerging from India and South Africa show that people coinfected with TB and COVID-19 have three times higher mortality than people infected with TB alone.
She said this development makes contact tracing, case finding and bi-directional TB and COVID-19 testing essential.
“After less than a year, a vaccine was developed and is now being deployed to help contain, and hopefully end, the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Thokozile Nkhoma, Stop TB Partnership Board Member representing communities affected by TB.
Ms Nkhoma said the only approved vaccine for TB is 100 years old and does not fully work, especially in adults.
“First-line TB treatment for TB is several decades old, and drug resistance is on the rise, while the millions of people with TB who are not found and treated remain at risk of spreading the disease,” she said.
In his remarks, Executive Director of Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, Peter Sands, said countries need to work together in close coordination, pace and scale to respond to this challenge.
Mr Sands said the COVID-19 pandemic has made the world have a rethink about the threat of infectious diseases.
He noted that the Global Fund will continue to support countries to eradicate the TB burden.
“Global Fund has invested over $7.2 billion to prevent and treat TB up till June 2020,” Mr Sands said.
The Minister of Health and Family Welfare in India, Harsh Vardhan, said the COVID-19 pandemic distracted everyone from other burning health issues.
“TB didn’t go anywhere when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, people just got distracted, health workers were redirected, and health systems became overwhelmed,” he said.
“Recovery efforts succeed with political leadership and substantial resources, along with an insistence that COVID-19 outreach and prevention efforts include TB work, instead of replacing it.”
The Stop TB calls for global investment in TB outreach and treatment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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