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Progress Against Tuberculosis ‘at Risk’: WHO

Urgent action and funding are needed to sustain progress in the global fight against tuberculosis (TB), the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has said, warning that global targets for prevention and treatment “will likely be missed”.

According to the UN health agency, though TB cases fell by 9 per cent and deaths by 14 per cent between 2015 and 2019, access to TB services remains a challenge.

“Equitable access to quality and timely diagnosis, prevention, treatment and care remains a challenge”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said in a news release announcing the findings.

“Accelerated action is urgently needed worldwide if we are to meet our targets by 2022,” he urged.

Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis and most often affecting the lungs, TB spreads through the air when people with the disease cough, sneeze or spit. In spite of being a curable disease, many people die from TB and it is a leading cause of death of people living with HIV.

Approximately 90 percent of those who fall sick with the disease each year live in just 30 countries. Most people who develop the disease are adults, and there are more cases among men than women

Challenges

In 2019, approximately 1.4 million people died from TB-related illnesses, and of the estimated 10 million people who developed the disease that year, some 3 million were not diagnosed or were not officially reported to national authorities, according to WHO.

The situation is even more acute for people with drug-resistant TB. About 465,000 people were newly diagnosed with drug-resistant TB in 2019 and, of these, over 60 per cent were not able to access treatment.

There has also been limited progress in scaling up access to treatment to prevent TB, said WHO, adding that funding is a major challenge. In 2020, funding for TB prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care reached $6.5 billion, about half of the $13 billion target agreed by world leaders in 2018.

In addition, disruptions in services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to further setbacks, said the UN health agency.

In many countries, human, financial and other resources have been reallocated from TB to the COVID-19 response, while data collection and reporting systems have also been impacted.

COVID-19 and TB

In line with WHO guidance, countries have taken measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on essential TB services, including by strengthening infection control.

A total of 108 countries – including 21 with a high TB burden – have expanded the use of digital technologies to provide remote advice and support. Countries are also encouraging home-based treatment, providing all-oral treatment as well as preventive treatment, to reduce the need for patients to visit health facilities.

Countries, civil society and other partners have joined forces to ensure that essential services for both TB and COVID-19 are maintained for those in need, said Tereza Kaseva, Director of WHO’s Global TB Programme.

“These efforts are vital to strengthen health systems, ensure health for all, and save lives,” she added.

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