We have a clear moral duty to lead the way on tackling tuberculosis

Nick's article on 4 June for Parliament's 'House'  magazine, which can also be read here.

Which infectious disease kills more people than any other? The answer surprises most people: Tuberculosis. The leading cause of death in human history, TB – once known as Consumption – should have been beaten with the discovery of antibiotics.

But it has made a terrible comeback. Last year an estimated 10.4 million people fell ill with the disease and 1.7 million people died – more than AIDS and malaria combined.

If that shouldn’t be enough to inspire a major international response, TB is also the world’s only major drug-resistant disease transmitted through the air. There are over half a million cases of drug-resistant TB every year, and only one in ten people can expect to be successfully treated.

No epidemic in human history has been beaten without a vaccine – but there is no adult vaccine for TB. Drugs and diagnostics are old-fashioned, making tackling the bug harder.

Yet TB continues to receive only a tiny proportion of international global health financing, with investment in research and development uncoordinated and consistently falling short of the annual need.

According to the Sustainable Development Goals, TB should be beaten in 15 years’ time. At the current rate of progress it will take 160 years to achieve this outcome.

Quite apart from the humanitarian implications, with tens of millions more losing their lives needlessly, the economic cost of the pandemic will be catastrophic. TB will cost the global economy over £700bn between 2015 and 2030. Some of the world’s poorest countries could lose more than 2 per cent of their GDP. There are clear moral, economic and health security imperatives to act.

TB has been the orphan disease, receiving little of the attention, money or celebrity support that other killer bugs rightly attract. At last this is changing.

Within the last year TB has been pushed onto the agenda at G7, G20 and BRICS summits. The WHO convened a global ministerial conference in Moscow last November. And in September the United Nations General Assembly will – for the first time – convene a High-Level Meeting on TB.

This initiative has the potential to transform the global response to the disease. Heads of government have been invited to participate, and the UK’s leadership will be critical. Over 100 MPs and Peers have written to the Prime Minister urging her to attend the meeting in person, and this Thursday (7 June), the House of Commons will debate a backbench motion calling for the government’s fullest possible support.

The UK has a strong record on which to lead successful global action on TB. We are the world’s second largest funder of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Malaria and TB. The government’s leadership on antimicrobial resistance (in which TB is a major concern) has united countries from around the world to prevent a future public health catastrophe.

Our own relatively high rates of the disease – London is one of the TB capitals of Europe – are being brought down by a new public health strategy. British healthcare workers and scientists remain at the forefront of the global response to TB, from the clinic to the laboratory.

25 years ago, the World Health Organisation declared TB a “global health emergency”. Since then it has killed nearly 50 million people.

The High-Level Meeting is a once in a generation opportunity to change the trajectory of the world’s deadliest infectious disease. We don’t need another declaration at the UN: we need leadership and action.   

Nick Herbert MP and Virendra Sharma MP are co-chairmen of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global TB. For more information visit: www.appg-tb.org.uk

Nick HerbertTB