STEFAN ARMBRUSTER | SBS WORLD NEWS | 29 OCTOBER 2015
Tuberculosis now rivals HIV/AIDS as the world’s most deadly infectious disease, killing about 1.5 million people a year, a World Health Organisation report says.
The 20th annual Global Tuberculosis Report also said major advances have been made in reducing the TB infection and death rate over the past two decades.
TB is an ancient disease of poverty and still one of the biggest killers in the world.
“We are still facing a burden of 4,400 people dying every day, which is unacceptable in an era when you can diagnose and cure nearly every person with TB,” said Dr Mario Raviglione, Director of WHO’s Global TB Programme in a statement.
Another 9.6 million people fell sick to the airborne disease in 2014.
China, India, Brazil and Russia have very high rates and sub-Saharan Africa the worst number of simultaneous infections with HIV/AIDS.
Fifty-eight per cent of the world’s TB is on Australia’s doorstep in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific countries.
“The good news is that since 1990s we’ve reduced TB [deaths globally] by 47 per cent. The bad news is that 1.5 million people died of it [last year], and a lot in our region. It’s a mixed score card,” said Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia that runs TB programs throughout Papua New Guinea.
“We now have to take seriously that this is a killer as big as AIDS.”
The WHO said better diagnosis and treatment have saved 43 million lives in the last 15 years.
Australia has one of the lowest rates in the world, with about 1,300 infections and about a dozen deaths a year.
Just across the Torres Strait international border, it is at epidemic levels in Papua New Guinea.
“PNG is off target. It’s poor, TB is a disease of the poor – PNG particularly has got a problem. 3,800 people died of TB in PNG last year,” said Mr Costello.
“It can jump the border. That concerns Australia. It’s only a very small strip of water between us and we rightly need to be engaged here.”
The WHO warns data on multi-drug resistant TB in the Western Pacific is unreliable. It was one these strains from PNG that crossed into Australia and claimed two lives in the last two years.
Billions more in funding is needed if TB is ever going to be controlled or eradicated.
“As a first world disease, (HIV/AIDS) had first world resources that we brought to it and that benefited those in the developing world that were poor,” said Mr Costello.
“We haven’t had that profile around TB.”
The US$8b ‘Global Fund fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria’ was short US$1.4b this year and research for new drugs and vaccines US$1.3b under-funded.
Australia pledged A$200 million dollars to the Global Fund over its current three year program, but there are concerns if that will continue afterwards.
“In the Pacific and South-East Asia the Global Fund is doing far more than the Australian government ever could – in other words we are leveraging our aid dollars massively,” Mr Costello said.
“But sadly with cuts over the next four years of $11.3b to the Australian aid program, there’s very little money there.”
The WHO says the Global Fund has helped bring eight new anti-TB drugs and 15 vaccines to advanced stages of development, but eradication is still a long way off.
“We’ll probably end TB at this rate in another 200 years. That’s concerning; we need to be investing more to get this done in 15 years – that’s what global goals are all about,” said Maree Nutt, Australian CEO of the global health lobby Group Results.
“For every dollar that’s put into the Global Fund from Australia, more than ten dollars is invested in the Asia-Pacific region from the Global Fund, so that’s a really good return on Australian aid money.”
Donors to the Global Fund are due to meet next year.