Tuberculosis deaths increase for first time in years, due to COVID

LONDON (AP) – The number of people killed by tuberculosis increased for the first time in more than a decade, largely because fewer people were tested and treated as resources were diverted to fight the pandemic coronavirus, said the World Health Organization.

In its annual tuberculosis report released on Thursday, the United Nations health agency said 1.5 million people worldwide died from the bacterial disease last year, a slight increase from 1.4 million deaths in 2019. Evidence of the ancient disease has been found in Egyptian mummies and is believed to have killed more people in history than any other infectious disease; Tuberculosis regularly kills more people each year than AIDS and malaria.

WHO also said significantly fewer people were recently diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2020; 5.8 million against 7.1 million in 2019. The agency also estimates that around 4 million people suffer from tuberculosis but have not yet been diagnosed, against 2.9 million the previous year.

The disease is caused by bacteria that often infect the lungs and is highly transmissible when sick people cough or sneeze. About a quarter of the world’s population has latent TB infection, which means they carry the bacteria, but have not gotten sick and cannot pass it on. Those who harbor the bacteria have a 5-10% chance of eventually developing tuberculosis.

The disease is treatable if caught early, but drug-resistant versions have complicated treatment efforts, and scientists are increasingly concerned that the bacteria will soon become faster than available drugs. The countries with the highest number of tuberculosis cases are India, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa.

“We cannot accept that year after year 1.5 million people die from the curable disease of tuberculosis because they do not have access to the diagnostics and the drugs that can save their lives,” said Stijn Deborggraev, diagnostic advisor for the Doctors Without Borders Access campaign. In a statement, Deborggraev said access to tests was limited in many countries with high numbers of tuberculosis patients because they were dependent on tests carried out by the American company Cepheid, which he said was overcharging poorer countries. for their tests.

He said Cepheid had received more than $ 250 million in public investment to develop its TB testing technology and failed to make it accessible to those who needed it most.

The company claims to have made its test cartridges available to the poorest countries “at low margins” and claims to be “an active participant in the global fight against tuberculosis”.

WHO noted that global investments in TB control efforts had fallen and said global efforts to meet targets to reduce the number of people affected by the disease “seemed increasingly out of reach.” .

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