Tuberculosis on the rise

The tuberculosis test. Picture courtesy of the Centres for Disease Control (Unsplash)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported an increase in the number of people falling ill with tuberculosis and drug resistant TB during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Data from the health agency reveals that over 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis (TB) in 2021, an increase of 4.5 per cent from 2020, and more than one million people died from TB. Also, the burden of drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) also increased by three per cent between 2020 and 2021, with 450,000 new cases of rifampicin-resistant TB (RR-TB) in 2021. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that with solidarity, determination, innovation and the equitable use of tools, we can overcome severe health threats. Let’s apply those lessons to tuberculosis. It is time to put a stop to this long-time killer. Working together, we can end TB,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.

Continued challenges with providing and accessing essential TB services have meant that many people with TB were not diagnosed and treated. The reported number of people newly diagnosed with TB fell from over seven million in 2019 to more than five million in 2020. There was a partial recovery to over six million in 2021, but this was still well below pre-pandemic levels. Reductions in the reported number of people diagnosed with TB suggest that the number of people with undiagnosed and untreated TB has grown, resulting first in an increased number of TB deaths and more community transmission of infection and then, with some lag-time, increased numbers of people developing TB.

The number of people provided with treatment for RR-TB and multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) has also declined between 2019 and 2020. The reported number of people started on treatment for RR-TB in 2021 was over 160 000, only about one in three of those in need. In low and middle-income countries, international donor funding remains crucial. The main source is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (the Global Fund). The United States Government is the largest contributor of funding to the Global Fund, it contributes close to 50 per cent of international donor funding for TB. “The report provides important new evidence and makes a strong case on the need to join forces and urgently redouble efforts to get the TB response back-on-track to reach TB targets and save lives,” said Dr Tereza Kasaeva, Director of WHO’s Global TB Programme.  “This will be an essential tool for countries, partners and civil society as they review progress and prepare for the 2nd UN High Level Meeting on TB mandated for 2023,” he added.

Tuberculosis, after COVID-19, is the second deadliest infectious killer caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) that most often affect the lungs. It can spread when people who are sick with TB expel bacteria into the air through coughing. But it is curable with drugs over a 4-6 month period.

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