The World Health Organisation says Tuberculosis case numbers increased last year for the first time in more than 20 years, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic which disrupted access to diagnosis and treatment.
Tuberculosis has rebounded after years of decline, killing an estimated 1.6 million people in 2021 – up 14 per cent in two years.
Overtaken by COVID-19 during the worst of the pandemic as the world’s biggest infectious killer, tuberculosis claimed an estimated 1.5 million lives in 2020 and 1.4 million in 2019.
Tereza Kasaeva, the director of the UN health agency’s global tuberculosis programme, said it was now a “pivotal moment” in the fight against the disease.
“For the first time in nearly two decades, WHO is reporting an increase in the number of people falling ill with tuberculosis and drug-resistant tuberculosis, alongside an increase in tuberculosis-related deaths,” she said.
An estimated 10.6 million people fell ill with tuberculosis in 2021 – a 4.5 per cent increase on 2020, the WHO said in its annual Global tuberculosis report.
Most people who developed tuberculosis last year were in southeast Asia (45 percent), Africa (23 per cent) and the Western Pacific region (18 per cent).
The WHO blamed the resurgence of the disease on COVID-19.
“The overarching finding of this report is that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a damaging impact on access to TB diagnosis and treatment and the burden of TB disease,” the WHO said.
“Progress made in the years up to 2019 has slowed, stalled, or reversed, and global TB targets are off track.
“Intensified efforts backed by increased funding are urgently required to mitigate and reverse the negative impacts of the pandemic on TB.”
The incidence rate – new cases per 100,000 population per year — increased by 3.6 percent between 2020 and 2021, after declining by around two percent a year for most of the last two decades.
Tuberculosis is caused by a bacteria that most often affects the lungs. Like COVID-19, it is transmitted via the air by infected people, for example by coughing. It is preventable and curable.
The WHO said conflicts around the world, the global energy crisis and associated risks to food security were likely to worsen the situation further.
“The top priority is to restore access to and provision of essential tuberculosis services, so that levels of TB case detection and treatment can recover to at least 2019 levels,” the report said.
Eight countries accounted for more than two-thirds of the global total of the cases: India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
– ‘Long-time killer –
“Globally, the annual estimated number of deaths from TB fell between 2005 and 2019, but the estimates for 2020 and 2021 suggest that this trend has been reversed,” the UN’s health agency said in the report.
Most of the estimated increase in TB deaths globally was accounted for by four countries: India, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.
The report said it was possible tuberculosis would “once again be the leading cause of death worldwide from a single infectious agent, replacing Covid-19”.
But Mel Spigelman, president of the non-profit TB Alliance, told Newsmen last week that had already happened, comparing the annual tuberculosis death rate to the latest COVID-19 figures.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that with solidarity, determination, innovation, and the equitable use of tools, we can overcome severe health threats,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Let’s apply those lessons to tuberculosis. It is time to put a stop to this long-time killer.”