Charity warns of new rise in TB cases as all resources focused on coronavirus pandemic

With the world’s medical resources deployed to fight the coronavirus, millions of people are predicted to develop Tuberculosis (TB) as a result of the lockdown. Before the current crisis, TB was fast becoming a pandemic threat.

A three month lockdown and ten month restoration could lead to an additional 6.3 million cases of TB between 2020 and 2025, the Stop TB Partnership warned in its latest report. The partnership – a collective of NGOs and government bodies – claimed that an additional 1.4 million TB deaths may occur during this time.

The partnership fears that diagnosis and treatment will fall by the wayside, with doctors focused on treating the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected some 3.7 million people worldwide, killing nearly 260,000.

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There are around 100 potential vaccines for the coronavirus in the works. By contrast, while TB has been around for thousands of years, only one vaccine exists, and it only works for children. TB kills around 1.5 million people every year, more than HIV/AIDS, Cholera, or any other infectious disease, according to the World Health Organization.

“I think this world, sorry for my French, is really f**ked up,” Stop TB Partnership Director Lucica Ditiu told the Guardian on Wednesday. “The fear we have in the community is that researchers are heading towards just developing a vaccine for Covid,” she continued. 

“That’s on the agenda of everyone now and very few remain focused on the others. We don’t have a vaccine for TB, we don’t have a vaccine for HIV, we don’t have a vaccine for malaria and out of all this, TB is the oldest. So why this reaction?”

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, incidences of TB had been falling by around two percent per year. Now though, Ditiu warned that lockdown measures may roll back that progress by between five and ten years. For every additional month of lockdown, her organization estimates that 71,000 people in India will die, along with 1,747 in Kenya, and 270 in Ukraine.

Yet before the current crisis, and even with TB infections dropping yearly, scientists were already sounding the alarm about new, drug-resistant strains of TB. As early as 2013, British researchers warned that drug-resistant TB could be humanity’s “next pandemic,” with these new strains potentially leading to a breakout like that of the 19th century, which killed about a quarter of Europe’s adult population.

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Five years later, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported that incidences of the most severe form of drug-resistant TB had increased on the continent from 350 in 2012 to nearly 5,000 in 2016, the majority of which were found in the former eastern bloc. 

TB is not the only disease that researchers fear may flourish as a side-effect of coronavirus restrictions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Chad, the Covid situation has been compounded by a measles outbreak. The DRC is also reeling from an ebola outbreak, ongoing since 2018. Medecins Sans Frontieres cautioned on Tuesday that lockdown measures are restricting the ability of doctors to get in and treat the sick.

“Every delay and every obstacle increases the risk of the epidemic continuing to spread, killing more children,” said Emmanuel Lampaert, MSF’s Congo coordinator. “As we adapt our approach to the coronavirus pandemic and support the response to it, it is important to remember that a one-track focus on Covid-19 will sow the seeds of other major health crises.”

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