By Peter Kenny
GENEVA (AA) - Marking World TB Day, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria said on Friday that 30 years after describing TB as a global health emergency, it's time to recognize it as a pandemic and bring the disease to an end.
"TB is a disease that has been around for thousands of years," Peter Sands, executive director of The Global Fund, said in a statement.
"We have the tools to fight it, and we've proven we can beat it. We've managed to eliminate it as a public health threat in virtually all the richest countries in the world," he added.
It was 141 years ago – March 24, 1882 – that German scientist Robert Koch first presented his discovery of the bacterium that causes TB, which can attack any part of the body, such as the kidney, spine, and brain.
The world still allows millions of people to continue to suffer and die from a disease that is preventable, treatable, and curable, Sands said.
He said TB is an example of a specific kind of inequity and that unless a disease threatens people in rich countries, it is not thought of as a pandemic.
- Counts as pandemic
"But TB meets every test of counting as a pandemic," Sands asserted.
"TB will likely kill more people in low- and middle-income countries in 2023 than COVID-19, making it the world's biggest infectious disease killer (it killed 1.6 million people in 2021)," he said.
Yet, despite TB being curable, progress against it is at a snail's pace, and over the last decade, TB deaths fell by 2% a year, Sands said.
Sands noted that The Global Fund provides 77% of all financial support to countries fighting TB, or about $800 million annually.
"It's time to end this age-old pandemic for good. Turbocharging the fight against TB provides 'double' benefits: It will save millions of lives and strengthen our ability to protect against future pandemics," said Sands.
The health system capabilities required to beat TB are the same to respond to most potential pandemics, particularly the respiratory infections that the WHO regards as the most likely threats.
- Increase in TB deaths
On Wednesday, World Health Organization chief Tedros Ghebreyesus told journalists from a webinar in Geneva that tests, treatments, and a vaccine against TB have saved countless lives.
He said that since 2000, deaths from TB have dropped by nearly 40% globally, and more than 74 million people have received access to TB services.
"The COVID-19 pandemic, and conflicts in many countries, have severely disrupted services to prevent, detect and treat TB," said Tedros.
"As a result, WHO last year reported an increase in TB deaths for the first time in more than a decade."
Tedros said increasing drug resistance undermines the effectiveness of some medicines used to treat TB.
He explained that the only vaccine developed to fight TB, the BCG vaccine, is over 100 years old and does not adequately protect adolescents and adults, who account for most of the disease's transmission.