TB Still A Deadly Threat In Southeast Asia

This file photo shows inmates from the Quezon City jail being processed during a mass screening for tuberculosis (TB) in suburban Manila. (AFP Photo)

It has been slightly more than a year since the COVID-19 virus emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019. The current health crisis has taken over 2.7 million lives since then and continues to infect thousands of people every day. 

While more than 400 million people have been vaccinated with coronavirus jabs, nations across the globe are still struggling to contain the deadly virus. However, in the midst of the fight against COVID, there are other, older deadly diseases that people seem to have forgotten. One of these diseases is tuberculosis (TB). 

TB remains one of the world’s deadliest infectious killers.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every day, some 4,000 people lose their lives to TB while close to 28,000 people fall ill from this preventable and curable disease. In 2019, 10 million people contracted TB, and of those, 1.4 million died from the disease that same year. 

Each year, the United Nations (UN) dedicates 24 March as World Tuberculosis Day to raise public awareness about the devastating health, social and economic consequences of tuberculosis (TB). 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States (US), TB is caused by the bacterium named mycobacterium tuberculosis which typically attack the lungs. However, the TB bacteria can also harm other parts of the body such as the kidneys and brain. 

There are two types of TB-related conditions which are; latent TB infection (LTBI) and TB disease. A person who has LTBI generally does not feel sick and cannot spread the disease to others. However, for those with TB disease – it could be fatal if not treated properly.

TB is an airborne disease that is spread from person to person through the air. Statistics from the WHO states that TB is one of the top 10 causes of death in the world. Everyone is at risk of TB and the disease does not target a specific gender or age group. However, it is said that the disease mostly affects adults in their most productive years.

Fortunately, TB is a curable and preventable disease with the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine. In many countries, children receive the BCG vaccine to prevent childhood tuberculous meningitis. There have been more than 60 million lives saved since 2000 by global efforts to end TB.

Nevertheless, according to media reports, the BCG vaccination will not stop one from being infected with TB as an adult. 

A specialist who spoke to the media but requested anonymity, said that 75 percent of TB deaths involved young adults who lose the strength of the BCG vaccination, making them vulnerable to the disease.

In 2018, the WHO stated that just eight countries across the globe accounted for two thirds of all TB cases with India leading the count, followed by China, then ASEAN member states Indonesia and the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa.

End TB strategy
Source: World Health Organisation

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to 26 percent of the world’s population with a 44 percent burden of TB incidence. It is estimated that TB makes over four million people sick annually, killing some 650,000 individuals in the region.

Based on media reports, the region has been doubling its investment in TB programs to intensify active case findings, harnessing new technologies for diagnosis and treatments among other efforts. However, more strategies are needed to help eliminate the disease.

It was reported in 2019 that the bloc has opened a new front in the battle to end TB by 2030. The region’s new action plan to combat TB, endorsed at the 2019 WHO South-East Asia Regional Committee in New Delhi, India could help reduce cases by an additional 12 to 15 percent each year, equating to around 270,000 fewer cases annually.

One of the strategies is to extend treatment from selected groups such as people with HIV – who are 19 times more likely to develop active TB – to everyone who lives with a person having the disease. This means that both – patients with TB and their close contacts – will receive treatment and TB preventive therapy, respectively.

Regional efforts and strategies can also be seen taking place to end the disease. For example, Indonesia – the country with the third highest TB caseload internationally – ran a TB training partnership with Australian institutions in 2018 to strengthen the local capacity to meet the WHO’s End TB Strategy targets, according to a report titled, ‘Training for Tuberculosis Elimination in Indonesia: Achievements, Reflections, and Potential for Impact’ that was published by the MDPI, a Switzerland-based organisation for peer-reviewed journals.  

The WHO’s End TB Strategy aims to reduce TB deaths by 95 percent and to cut new cases by 90 percent between 2015 and 2035, while ensuring no family is burdened with catastrophic expenses due to TB.

With the world’s current fears and focus on COVID-19, will there be a halt in the progress to eliminate another perennial infectious killer? Can the End TB Strategy meet its goal to end the disease by 2035?

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