Though the Coronavirus has been dominating news cycles, there has been another ongoing public health crisis that rarely garners media coverage.
This threat has been around for centuries, and some strands are resistant to a cure. With a presence in every country in the world, tuberculosis is one of the original pandemics.
Last year, the bacterial infection sickened 10 million people and caused more than 1.5 million deaths, according to the nonprofit TB Alliance. Break down those figures and they amount to more than 4,000 people dying every day, making the airborne disease the leading infectious killer in the world.
On this World Tuberculosis Day, that means someone will die every 21 seconds. Observers spend March 24 raising awareness about this illness that affects what the World Health Organization estimates is a quarter of the global population.
“This is an opportunity to remind world leaders of the commitment they made to end the suffering and death caused by this ancient and terrible disease,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, said yesterday during a COVID-19 news conference. “The world is rightly so responding to COVID-19 with urgency and purpose. We call on the global community to harness that same urgency and purpose to fight against tuberculosis.”
The African region is hard hit by TB, which according to WHO, accounts for more than 25% of the deaths; in addition, the respiratory disease is the leading cause of death among HIV-positive patients, who are disproportionately impacted on the continent.
However, the African region has seen some success in TB diagnosis and treatment, which saved an estimated 10 million lives between 2000 and 2014. A reminder, as Dr. Ghebreyesus noted, that this is a preventable and treatable disease.
The TB Alliance, which promotes the development of and accessibility to affordable drugs, partnered on an initiative with Kenya’s Ministry of Health to inform citizens about testing and new treatments. In 2016, Kenya became the first country to introduce a child-friendly TB medication that adhered to WHO guidelines.
Organizers from the TB Alliance said, “In the three years since launch, we have seen 88 countries order close to one million treatment courses of the improved pediatric formulations.”
According to TB Alliance statistics, one million is also the number of children who develop tuberculosis each year.
The WHO Regional Office for Africa, over the last four years, has been working toward its End TB Strategy, with a mission to reduce the number of TB deaths by 35% and the number of TB patients by 20%.
The mission also includes the elimination of the exorbitant costs associated with TB that result in economic devastation that burdens families, communities and entire countries.
Often called a silent killer, the disease most commonly attacks the lungs, but other organs are susceptible. Active TB is highly contagious and can cause bloody coughs, weight loss, chest pains, night sweats, weakness and eventually death. Those with latent TB have the bacteria without the symptoms, but WHO advises patients to seek treatment so active TB never develops.
The United Nations has a Sustainable Development Goal to end the TB pandemic by 2030.
The clock ticks.