Tuberculosis deaths rise for the first time in more than a decade due to the COVID-19 pandemic

ADDIS ABABA – The COVID-19 pandemic has reversed years of global progress in tackling tuberculosis and for the first time in over a decade, TB deaths have increased, says the World Health Organization’s 2021 Global TB report. 

In 2020, the report says more people died from TB, with far fewer people being diagnosed and treated or provided with TB preventive treatment compared with 2019.

Approximately 1.5 million people died from TB including 214 000 among HIV positive people in 2020, according to the WHO.

The increase in the number of TB deaths occurred mainly in 30 countries with the highest burden of TB. Sixteen of them are in Africa.

WHO’s projects the number of people developing TB and dying from the disease could be much higher in 2021 and 2022.

“TB services are among many others disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but the impact on TB has been particularly severe,” said the UN health agency,  calling it “alarming news” that needs urgent response.

Two Major Challenges

The first challenge, the report says, is disruption in access to TB services and a reduction in resources.

In many countries,  it says that human, financial and other resources have been reallocated from tackling TB to the COVID-19 response, limiting the availability of essential services.

The report shows a fall in global spending on TB diagnostic, treatment and prevention services, from $5.8 dollars billion to $5.3 billion Dollars, which is less than half of the global target for fully funding the TB response of $13 billion Dollars annually by 2022.

The second is that people have struggled to seek care in the context of lockdowns.

The Global TB Report says the number of people newly diagnosed with TB and those reported to national governments fell from 7.1 million in 2019 to 5.8 million in 2020.

The report claims at least 4.1 million people currently suffer from TB but have not been diagnosed with the disease or have not officially reported to national authorities.

This figure is up from 2.9 million in 2019.

Global targets off track

Reversals in progress mean that the global TB targets are off track and appear increasingly out of reach, however there are some successes.

Globally, the reduction in the number of TB deaths between 2015 and 2020 was only 9.2% – about one quarter of the way to the 2020 milestone of 35%.

The number of people falling ill with TB each year dropped 11% from 2015 to 2020, just over half-way to the 2020 milestone of 20%.

However, the WHO European Region exceeded the 2020 milestone, with a reduction of 25%. This was mostly driven by the decline in the Russian Federation, where incidence fell by 6% per year between 2010 to 2020.

The WHO African Region also came close to reaching the milestone, with a reduction of 19%, which reflects impressive reductions of 4–10% per year in southern Africa countries, following a peak in the HIV epidemic and the expansion of TB and HIV prevention and care.

 Urgent Response Requested 

Dr Tereza Kasaeva, Director of WHO’s Global TB Program, said the world is just one year left to reach the historic 2022 TB targets committed by Heads of State at the first UN High Level Meeting on TB.

“The report provides important information and a strong reminder to countries to urgently fast-track their TB responses and save lives,”  the director said.

The report calls on countries to put in place urgent measures to restore access to essential TB services.

The new report features data on disease trends and the response to the epidemic from 197 countries and areas, including 182 of the 194 World Health Organization (WHO) Member States.

TB Facts

– Tuberculosis (TB), the second (after COVID- 19) deadliest infectious killer, is caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) that most often affect the lungs. It can spread when people who are sick with TB expel bacteria into the air – for example, by coughing.

– Approximately 90 percent of those who fall sick with TB each year live in 30 countries including 16 African nations

– Most people who develop the disease are adults –in 2020 – men accounted for 56% of all TB cases, adult women accounted for 33% and children for 11%.

– Many new cases of TB are attributable to five risk factors: under-nutrition, HIV infection, alcohol use disorders, smoking and diabetes.

– TB is preventable and curable. About 85% of people who develop TB disease can be successfully treated with a 6-month drug regimen; treatment has the added benefit of curtailing onward transmission of infection.