Fight against tuberculosis needs urgent global response

by UK lawmakers Nick Herbert, Andrew George and Virendra Sharma
Monday, 24 March 2014 19:00 GMT

A doctor (L) comforts her tuberculosis patient at the Indonesian Union Against Tuberculosis clinic in Jakarta, April 4, 2011. REUTERS/Beawiharta

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Just this year, the UN identified TB as the “most cost-effective” health intervention measured, returning $30 for every $1 invested - a global response is needed to accelerate the fight against it.

UK lawmakers Nick Herbert, Andrew George and Virendra Sharma are members of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Tuberculosis.

Few issues cross political divides, and fewer still cross national boundaries to motivate decision makers around the world to join together with one voice and call for action. Tuberculosis (TB), however, is a unique case. 

This ancient disease, mankind’s greatest infectious killer, is a very modern threat: an airborne disease found in every country in the world, from the wealthiest to the least developed, and now one that has become drug resistant. 

Today is World Tuberculosis Day – a day that commemorates the discovery of the TB bacteria in 1882.  Yet, 132 years later, TB continues to outrun our attempts to control it. Every year, 1.3 million people die from the disease.  As Medecins Sans Frontieres put it, to mark TB Day, 22,000 people will catch the disease.

To remind the world that TB is not a disease of the past, and to renew our efforts against it, we have joined with over 160 representatives from across the G7 nations and the European Parliament to call for coordinated global action.

There are many reasons for urgency.  Last October, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released its annual Global TB Report, which showed that TB incidence rates are falling globally, but at 2 per cent this progress is slow at best. 

The decline also masks TB hotspots such as eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, and the continued spread of drug-resistant TB, which the WHO is now calling a “public health crisis”.

The human suffering caused by TB is immense, while neglecting the disease places a heavy burden on domestic healthcare budgets.

Nearly every country has cases of TB and drug-resistant TB, which can cost 10-15 times more to treat than the regular strain. 

A recent study showed that TB costs the EU €5.9 billion per year in healthcare costs and lost productivity.  And we can’t forget the lessons of New York City, where an outbreak of drug-resistant TB that peaked in the early 1990s was estimated to cost over $1 billion.

The WHO declared TB a “global health emergency” 21 years ago, yet the global fight against The disease is still facing an annual funding gap of $US 2 billion.

The UK government made an historic pledge of up to $1.5 billion to the Global Fund in December, and this and others made at that conference will help close the funding gap, but more effort is required to ensure that the fund receives the full $15 billion needed.

We are proud that the UK is at the forefront of the response, and equally proud that so many of our parliamentarians have put their name to this statement, but we can’t do it alone.  TB anywhere is TB everywhere, and we must work together to rally the leadership and funding needed to bring this airborne disease under control.

We must all do more to push TB up the political agenda, and to demonstrate to our governments that investing in TB pays off.  Over the last two decades, over 20 million people have been cured of TB; we have built a promising pipeline of new TB drugs that have the potential to treat TB more quickly and effectively; and a TB vaccine could be less than a decade away.  

Just this year, the UN identified TB as the “most cost-effective” health intervention measured, returning $30 for every $1 invested.

If we invest now to scale up existing tools and solutions and to increase the development of new drugs, diagnostics and vaccines, and if we support innovative projects to diagnose and treat everyone who has the disease, we can end TB as a public health threat in our lifetime.