WHO fears more tuberculosis deaths as COVID-19 pandemic continues

‘Significant reductions’ seen in health interventions of TB patients as a result of the lockdowns imposed due to the spread of COVID-19.

An Indonesian mother holds her baby as a medical staff prepares a TB vaccine for tuberculosis and oral polio vaccine at a community health centre in Surabaya last June 30 [File: Juni Kriswanto/AFP]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a “dramatic increase” in tuberculosis (TB) deaths in the coming years, as a result of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a continuing shortage of funds in its annual report on global efforts to combat the disease.

The WHO said there were “significant reductions” in the reporting and monitoring of new TB cases in the first half of 2020, as countries imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Three “high burden countries” – India, Indonesia and the Philippines – reported a drop of between 25 and 30 percent in case notifications over the six months to June 2020 compared with the same period last year.

The three countries are also among the countries with the highest incidences of coronavirus in the world.

“These reductions in case notifications could lead to a dramatic increase in additional TB deaths, according to WHO modelling,” the report said.

TB is considered as the world’s most deadly infectious disease. It is caused by a bacteria that most often affect the lungs, and can spread easily.

While an estimated 14 million people were treated for TB between 2018 to 2019, they represent only about a third of the 40 million that the UN agency hopes to treat by 2022.

‘Accelerated action needed’

The WHO noted that although the incidence of the disease dropped nine percent between 2015 and 2019 and fatalities decreased by 14 percent during the same period, more than 1.4 million people still died from tuberculosis in 2019.

Now the coronavirus pandemic is hampering the fight against TB.

“The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind the gains made over recent years,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“Accelerated action is urgently needed worldwide if we are to meet our targets,” he said.

Among the most pressing challenge in fighting TB is funding, according to WHO.

This year, funds raised for TB prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care only reached $6.5bn – half of the $13bn target agreed by world leaders in the UN Political Declaration against TB.

Without urgent action and investments, global targets for prevention and treatment are likely to be missed.

TB is preventable and curable and according to WHO data, about 85 percent of those who develop the disease can be successfully treated with a six-month drug regimen. The treatment also curtails onward transmission of the infection.

Since 2000, TB treatment has averted more than 60 million deaths, it said.

Although the incidence of TB dropped nine percent between 2015 and 2019, and fatalities decreased by 14 percent during the same period, more than 1.4 million people still died from the disease in 2019 [File: Sanjay Bain/EPA]

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that it was “disheartening” to see that governments worldwide were not on track to reach testing and treatment goals for the disease.

“TB has remained a burden throughout the course of human history, so isn’t it about time that governments got more serious about tackling this killer disease,” said Sharonann Lynch, MSF’s senior adviser on TB and HIV-AIDS.

“With COVID-19 causing backtracking on TB testing, governments need to come up with a catch-up plan. Time’s up for excuses.”

Source: Al Jazeera