On World Tuberculosis Day, new data shows the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the fight against another deadly airborne disease: tuberculosis. Global Fund surveys in 13 countries with the highest TB burden in the world reveal that 29% fewer people were tested for TB compared to 2019. Worse, in those same countries, there were 45% fewer people tested for multidrug-resistant TB – one of the most frightening forms of antimicrobial resistance.
As COVID-19 spread around the world in 2020, health workers, testing machines, laboratories and health centers were diverted from existing diseases like TB to fight the new pandemic. Without treatment, a single person with TB can infect 10-15 other people over the course of a year, or die.
“The fewer people we find, test and treat, the more TB cases and deaths there will be, and the higher the risk of multidrug-resistant TB spreading worldwide,” said Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund. “To end both COVID-19 and TB as epidemics, we must fight both diseases at the same time, increasing investments in the same tools, health workers and systems for health needed to fight TB and COVID-19 and prepare for future airborne pandemics.”
Results from 2020 show this is possible. The same tools the Global Fund partnership has built to fight TB are now being used to fight COVID-19, and emergency funding from the Global Fund to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on HIV, TB and malaria programs and reinforce systems for health has helped countries to continue to fight TB at the same time as fighting COVID-19.
For example, while testing levels plummeted in India and Bangladesh in the first months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they were able to rebound towards the end of 2020 and to test and treat nearly the same number of TB patients as they were pre-COVID. Countries have also accelerated innovative new approaches to fight TB, such as transitioning to all-oral treatment regimens for drug-resistant TB and using new smartphone applications to enable patients to report progress virtually, making it easier to adhere to treatment. In India, a new program tests people for COVID-19 and TB at the same time, a simple step that can stop onward transmission of both diseases – and ensure that TB patients are treated and cured.
To regain progress lost in 2020 and prevent a resurgence of TB, these successful adaptation programs and new approaches must be scaled up and expanded to other countries.
“Investing to fight TB and COVID-19 at the same time will save lives from both diseases. If we don’t, we run the risk of defeating one airborne pandemic only to watch deaths and cases from another soar,” said Sands.
The Global Fund is a partnership designed to accelerate the end of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as epidemics. As an international organization, the Global Fund mobilizes and invests more than US$4 billion a year to support programs run by local experts in more than 100 countries. In partnership with governments, civil society, technical agencies, the private sector and people affected by the diseases, we are challenging barriers and embracing innovation.