Global response needed for forgotten disease

Warren Entsch PM with TB advocate Louie Zepeda

SYDNEY MORNING HERALD 25 MARCH 2015 

By Warren Entsch

There are crises that are so terrible and urgent that they merit immediate attention: an outbreak of a killer disease that wreaks havoc across a region, or a natural disaster which leaves tens of thousands desperate and destitute.  But there are others, even more fatal, that seem to escape our attention. Tragically the global tuberculosis epidemic, still killing 1.5 million people a year, is one of these.

Past generations once knew tuberculosis (TB) all too well.  The disease was as common a century ago in Britain and Australia as flu is today.  It claimed the lives of luminaries such as John Keats, George Orwell and Emily Bronte.  It featured in the popular culture of the day.  It was responsible for as many as one in four deaths in Victorian England and Australia.

Yet today TB is a forgotten disease.  Too many people in the West believe that the battle has been won when in much of the world it still rages. Together, we have been very vocal in raising awareness of the TB crisis close to home – in London, which has the highest rates of TB of any capital city in western Europe, and Papua New Guinea, which lies just 4km off the coast of Australia.

A vaccine for the disease, widely thought to be effective, actually offers negligible protection.  Now TB has evolved into a new threat.  The golden age of antibiotics has passed: drug resistant strains of the disease are emerging that are effectively impossible to treat.  Only half of all patients with drug-resistant TB today are cured. Often those that are cured suffer horrendous side effects from the treatment such as permanent hearing, sight, and nerve damage.

22 years ago the World Health Organisation declared TB a “global health emergency” but the world failed to mobilise sufficiently.  Since then nearly 30 million lives have been lost.  Some progress has been made, but at the current rate of reduction TB will remain a threat to public health for 200 years.

Calls to step up the global response have been led by the BRICS nations and particularly Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s inspirational Health Minister.  With some of the highest rates of TB in the world, South Africa has launched one of the biggest diagnosis and treatment campaigns, showing what can be done.  The challenge is to repeat this success worldwide. 

We believe that parliamentarians have a critical role to play.  That is why both of us have joined the Global TB Caucus – a network of parliamentarians from around the world. The Caucus met for the first time in Barcelona late last year and launched a declaration that articulates a vision for a world free from TB.

The launch of the Caucus has come at a critical time.  The world is at a crossroads: we can urgently scale up existing interventions and invest to develop new ones – a road that the WHO estimates could lead to the elimination of TB within a generation – or we can continue on the same path, witnessing millions of lives lost in the years to come and risking an explosion of drug-resistance that could undo all progress.  

Figures released this week highlight the scale of the catastrophe that could unfold if drug resistant TB is allowed to spread.  The economic impact will run into the tens of trillions of dollars.  The disease will claim tens of millions of lives and threaten the health and wellbeing of hundreds of millions more.  TB, the disease responsible for more lives in the world’s history than any other, is anything but a problem of the past: it is a present and future threat.  That is why we must act now. 

On the eve of World TB Day on Tuesday,  the federal  Government pledged $20 million over three years to help fight tuberculosis in the Indo-Pacific region. The funding will support late stage clinical trials of new treatments and innovate new diagnostics.

Original article 




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