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New Global TB Report: the Time to Act is Now

by McKay Campbell, ACTION global intern

I am used to explaining the issues of tuberculosis as a global health program to my friends, as many of them view it as an issue that was resolved in the 1900s. However, I was surprised to be facing the same struggle when talking to a group of friends from the developing world, including friends from Mozambique and Afghanistan- two of the 22 high-burden TB countries. I attempted to explain the need for advocacy around global TB control, but they remained unconvinced that TB was a major public health problem. Eventually the group walked off, muttering under their breath that there’s no way TB is worse than malaria.

When the 2011 World Health Organization’s report on Global Tuberculosis Control was published this morning, I eagerly combed through it for proof of TB’s severity that I could share with my classmates. Just a few paragraphs into the introduction, I came across the fact that, after HIV, TB is the second leading cause of death from an infectious disease worldwide, killing 1.5 million people each year and is largely considered to be a disease of poverty.

In retrospect, my excitement over finding that fact is a bit embarrassing. However, it is a good anecdotal summary of the global problem of TB control. TB is simply not perceived as an issue that merits attention or investment, potentially because it is easy to treat in the developed world or maybe just because it hasn’t had an attention-grabbing ad campaign like malaria and HIV/AIDS.  The most commonly used TB diagnostic tests and vaccines are over 100 years old, the prominent set of first-line drugs are over 50 years old, and conventional laboratory capacity remains inadequate.

However, this is not to say that the TB report predicted a bleak future. This year’s report is the first ever to declare the absolute number of TB cases has been declining since 2006 and we are on track to cut the TB mortality rate in half by 2015 in almost every region. Xpert MTB/RIF, a new rapid molecular diagnostic test that helps diagnose TB and forms of drug resistance in under two hours, is rolling out globally which will drastically increase the accuracy and efficiency of diagnosing TB. It would be comforting to relax and become complacent in the fight against TB. But this is not the time to do so. The WHO report emphasizes the importance of scaling up investments in TB control now to maintain momentum.

TB is silently killing our world’s most vulnerable populations, often under the mask of AIDS. We are at the critical point to turn the tide against the disease.  With the new tools like Xpert and other diagnostics and treatments in the pipeline, it is imperative that we work NOW to raise awareness, invest, and put our full force into fighting one of our world’s biggest killers.

I personally look forward to doing my part to raise awareness about TB by talking to my classmates about the severity of TB, a disease that just so happens to kill more people each year than malaria, and a disease that we can control with better investments and increased focus.