Tuberculosis a grim reality but we can beat it

Image: Warren Entsch MP speaks at the launch of the Australian TB Caucus.

THE HON WARREN ENTSCH MP | THE COURIER MAIL | 29 AUGUST 2016

FOR me, ending tuberculosis is very personal. A pivotal moment in my childhood occurred when tuberculosis took my mum away for a year in the thoracic ward in Cairns in 1963.

It had a massive impact on our family.

I got to spend time with Mum now and then in the ward, but my three younger siblings were too little to visit and didn’t set eyes on her until she was home.

I’ve heard countless similar stories from other families in Australia.

TB is a truly horrible disease and one we don’t hear too much about in modern Australia.

In fact, until recently, I thought it was in the same category as polio – consigned to history.

Sadly, TB is very much still a horrific reality for our regional neighbours.

A couple of recent high-profile cases underline this. In March, the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre’s managing director, Sheriden Morris, was diagnosed with latent (non-infectious) TB after working with affected communities in PNG.

In June, seven students and teachers on Saibai Island in the Torres Strait tested positive for either latent or active TB, both of which are treatable.

So TB is not only contemporary, it’s also very close to home.

The good news is, it can be managed – in Australia and in our region.

The most effective way for Australia to make a difference is by adding our considerable weight to the global push via the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

Since 2002, Global Fund programs have saved 17 million lives and provided TB testing and treatment for 15.1 million people, well over half of them in our region.

The Global Fund takes the “teach a man to fish” approach, using financial contributions to stimulate national health systems to become increasingly self-sustaining.

And for every dollar Australia invests in the Global Fund, it ploughs $20 back into the Indo-Pacific. Given that our region carries 40 per cent of the world’s TB burden, that’s a huge financial return to prevention, treatment and health-workforce programs right on our doorstep.

The Global Fund is holding a conference in Montreal on September 16 to seek $US13 billion ($17 billion) for its program over the next three years, and I want to see Australia recommit.

We need to stay vigilant against TB and help our neighbours do likewise, for three key reasons.

Firstly, it’s the right thing to do and reflects who we are as Australians. Secondly, when our neighbours are at risk from TB, so are we – it is a bacterial infection spread easily via coughing and sneezing. And thirdly, because it affects mostly young adults in their most productive years, TB is a huge brake on regional development. We want the nations in our region to continue striding positively into the economic future.

Australia can play a pivotal and historic role in stamping out TB across our region for good. We should seize the chance.

Warren Entsch is the federal MP for Leichhardt and Co-Chair of the Australian TB Caucus.