Global deaths from tuberculosis increased for the first time in over a decade in 2020 as Covid-19 interrupted care and as limited funds and resources were diverted to fight the pandemic, according to a World Health Organization report published Thursday, underscoring the devastating knock-on impact the pandemic is having on our health and the fight against other deadly diseases.
Approximately 1.5 million people died from TB around the world in 2020, the WHO said, up from an estimated 1.4 million in 2019.
The figure—which the WHO said primarily reflects an increase in deaths in the 30, typically poorer nations with the highest TB burden, including China, Brazil, Bangladesh and Ethiopia—marks the first time fatalities from the curable and preventable disease have increased worldwide since 2005.
At the same time, the number of new diagnoses fell from approximately 7.1 million in 2019 to 5.8 million in 2020 and WHO estimates some 4.1 million people are suffering from the disease but have not received a diagnosis, up from 2.9 million in 2019.
The WHO said the disruption to essential services and care for TB, as well as the diversion of funding and resources earmarked for TB towards Covid-19, is responsible for erasing the years of progress controlling the disease around the world.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the findings were “alarming” and should “serve as a global wake-up call” to the urgent need for investment, research and innovation in TB.
TB fatalities are expected to be “much higher” in the next two years, according to WHO projections.
Tedros said the “report confirms our fears that the disruption of essential health services due to the pandemic could start to unravel years of progress against tuberculosis.” It’s not just progress fighting TB that experts fear will be erased by the pandemic and many of the disruptions to services disproportionately affect those living in poorer nations with less developed healthcare systems. The WHO has already warned of how the pandemic may set back its worldwide malaria and HIV programs, as well as access to vital services around the world. Many programs to vaccinate against diseases like measles, polio, and meningitis halted when lockdowns were implemented, leaving many unprotected against these dangerous diseases. Peter Sands, director of the Global Fund, described Covid-19 as “the most significant setback in the fight against HIV, TB and malaria that we have encountered in the two decades since the Global Fund was established.” The organization funds initiatives to tackle these diseases around the world.
Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that often attacks the lungs, is one of history’s biggest killers. In 2019, when the most recent data is available, TB was the world’s 13th biggest killer (deaths from TB in HIV-positive people are classified as HIV-related deaths and the disease would rank within the top ten if these were included). It has been documented in humans for thousands of years under various names—including consumption, phthisis and the White Plague—and was the leading infectious killer in the world (above HIV) until 2020, when Covid-19 claimed the top spot. It is both preventable and curable and today disproportionately affects poorer countries — the WHO said approximately 90% of those falling sick are in just 30 countries.
It is not just fights against infectious diseases that have been set back by disruptions caused by the pandemic. In wealthy countries like the U.S., routine surgeries and screenings or treatment for cancer have been delayed or canceled, leaving millions without the care they need. Recent polling suggests as many as one in five Americans had to delay care for serious illnesses due to the pandemic.
$5.3 billion. That’s how much was spent on TB in 2020, down from $5.8 billion in 2019, according to the WHO report. This is less than half of what the WHO says is needed.
Covid-19 Wreaks Havoc With The Best Laid Plans To End Tuberculosis (Forbes)
Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis (Helen Bynum, 2012)
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