In a sign of increasing political will in the battle against the world’s top infectious killer, the heads of the World Health Organization and USAID voiced their support for the global fight against tuberculosis last week in a reception during the United Nations General Assembly.
Advocates had been seeing a snowballing of political support to thwart tuberculosis, first with the announcement of a U.N. high-level meeting focused solely on TB next year, followed by the recent inclusion of the fight against TB in the G-20 declaration and excitement over a WHO ministerial conference on tuberculosis to be headlined by Russian President Vladimir Putin in November.
WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke movingly of his brother’s fight against tuberculosis at the reception hosted Sept. 19 by the Stop TB Partnership and WHO, both part of the U.N. He stressed that TB continues to be a major problem today and that antimicrobial resistance is making it even more deadly.
And the need for new drugs to combat tuberculosis, whose drug-resistant strains account for a third of antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) deaths, is growing. “Drug-resistant TB is the most common and lethal airborne AMR disease worldwide today, responsible for 250,000 deaths each year,” stated the WHO’s “Antibacterial Agents in Clinical Development” report, released last week.
It’s estimated that at least 75 million people will die of multidrug-resistant TB by 2050. And without new antibiotics in the fight against AMR, common infections and minor surgery could become life-threatening.
“I think I can say we now see more commitment, but we have to push,” Tedros told HuffPost about the fight to raise awareness on tuberculosis. “We need to use the Russian ministerial conference to increase the political commitment, and not just one conference. We have to do it regularly. We have to keep the momentum.”
“I don’t want to miss an opportunity ever of reminding people that over the past 200 years, TB has killed more people than the bubonic plague, polio, malaria, HIV/AIDS, influenza, Ebola ― all of those added together.”
USAID Administrator Mark Green chimed in with his support for the global fight against TB in his remarks at the U.N. reception last week.
“If there is one message that I can leave with you tonight, it is this: I would like to reaffirm the Trump administration’s strong support for our global health programs,” Green said. “We are committed because it’s a fight that we can win. We are committed because TB is the world’s deadliest infectious disease.”
Many global health advocates were pleased by Green’s affirmation of U.S. support in the fight against TB, since the U.S. is the top donor globally and the Trump administration had previously indicated plans to substantially cut support to international health programs.
“Those of us in the U.S. health community were really encouraged by the presence of Mark Green, and for him to recommit to global health and tuberculosis,” Loyce Pace, president and executive director at the Global Health Council, a membership organization that lobbies on global health issues, told HuffPost.
Tuberculosis, which has been among the top 10 causes of death globally since 2016, is a treatable and preventable airborne disease that spreads when an infected person coughs up micro-droplets of salvia and mucus.
While TB deaths fell 22 percent from 2000 to 2015, 10.4 million people are sickened by the disease each year. It kills 1.8 million people a year, which is about three people every minute.
“The only time you’re safe from TB is if you stop breathing,” said Aaron Motsoaledi, the health minister of South Africa and chair of the Stop TB Partnership, a group of public and private leaders under the United Nations Office for Project Service.
“I don’t want to miss an opportunity ever of reminding people that over the past 200 years TB has killed more people than the bubonic plague, polio, malaria, HIV/AIDS, influenza, Ebola ― all of those added together,” Motsoaledi said. “It will continue to be the leading cause of mortality if we don’t take action now.”
“Tuberculosis really doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” TB survivor Kate O’Brien said at the reception. “But we’re at the moment where things can change. This conversation is being elevated from ministers of health to the top, top people.”
Motsoaledi cautioned that the deaths of those suffering from tuberculosis cannot continue to go unnoticed.
“It’s people dying silently, slowly in one isolated corner after a long illness, after being out of the sight of the public for many months when everyone else has forgotten about you,” he said. “That is the danger of TB.”
However, he added that the recent showing of political support is encouraging.
“My biggest dream is that TB is now on the lips of every head of state,” he told HuffPost.
With that kind of support and more financial movement, there is now a “glimmer of hope” in the fight against the world’s top infectious killer, said Haileyesus Getahun, the coordinator of the TB/HIV and community engagement unit at WHO.
It’s that kind of support that can make stopping TB the stuff of the next few years instead of the next few decades, said Dr. Mel Spigelman, the president and chief executive of the TB Alliance, a nonprofit seeking to develop new TB drugs.
For Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the international Stop TB Partnership, this has all been a long time coming.
“TB was for so long forgotten and for too long forgotten. It’s time, and it’s impressive to see ― even though a bit late ― that it’s finally capturing the attention of the decision-makers and world leaders.”