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Tuberculosis remains one of world's deadliest diseases, but hope for vaccine rises

Health & Science
 Clinical lead doctor Al Story points to an X-ray showing a pair of lungs infected with tuberculosis in London, on Jan 27, 2014. [Reuters]

Global cases of tuberculosis also known as TB continued to rise last year as disruption to health services caused by the Covid-19 pandemic set back efforts to fight the disease, according to the latest report from the World Health Organization.

Tuberculosis, an infectious disease that usually attacks the lungs, is both preventable and curable. It caused an estimated 1.3 million deaths in 2022 — a 19 per cent drop from the year before, said the annual WHO report published last week.

However, there was a small increase in the number of global TB cases to an estimated 10.6 million. Some 40 per cent of people living with TB are undiagnosed and untreated.

The disease is just behind Covid-19 as the world's deadliest infectious illness, with India, Indonesia and the Philippines particularly affected.

Covid-19 disruption

The Covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, saw health services overwhelmed in many parts of the world. TB diagnosis and treatment levels plummeted, said Dr. Lucica Ditiu, the executive director of the Geneva-based Stop TB Partnership.

"Unfortunately, the incidence of TB is growing. We used to have a decline of 2 per cent per year. And then due to Covid, we have now an increase for the last two years — 2021 and 2022 — of almost 4 per cent," she told VOA.

The World Health Organization estimates that Covid-related disruptions resulted in almost half a million excess deaths from TB in the three years from 2020 to 2022.

Childhood TB

The report also reveals a concerning lack of progress in some areas, according to Ditiu.

"We see … a pretty difficult situation for people with drug-resistant TB as well as childhood TB. So [with] drug-resistant TB, just short of 200,000 were diagnosed and put in treatment," she said. "And exactly as the WHO said, two out of five people with drug-resistant TB had access to drug-resistant TB treatment. It's actually the access to diagnosis which is limiting that."

Ditiu said there are an estimated 1.3 million children with TB, about 12 per cent of the world total. Children make up 16 per cent of those who die from TB, she said.

Improved diagnosis

However, the focus on fighting tuberculosis appears to be getting back on track. The total number of cases diagnosed globally last year was 7.5 million, the highest ever recorded.

"This shows that the countries buckled up to recover after COVID – and even jump above the level before COVID," Ditiu said.

Vaccine hopes

A promising TB vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline, known as M72, is currently in the final stage of trials. Sixteen other vaccines are undergoing earlier stages of testing.

"We need a vaccine. So that will be the game changer," said Ditiu.

The 19 per cent fall in deaths from TB from 2018 to 2022 is still far short of the World Health Organization's target of a 75 per cent reduction by 2025.

Funding also fell short, reaching less than half of the WHO target of at least $13 billion on TB diagnosis, treatment and prevention services in 2022.

Governments committed to spending $22 billion a year on TB by 2027 at a special U.N. meeting in September.

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