Ending tuberculosis

13 years ago I visited Kenya and witnessed the devastation caused by the tuberculosis epidemic.  I became a passionate campaigner on the issue, setting up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global TB (www.appg-tb.org.uk) and the Global TB Caucus (www.globaltbcaucus.org).

This week our campaigning culminated in the first ever High-Level Meeting on TB at the United Nations in New York, which passed a declaration calling for an “urgent global response” and has the potential to be a turning point in the fight against the disease.  I had the honour of addressing the meeting.

TB is as old as humankind.  In the 19th Century, ‘consumption’ was the leading cause of death in the West.  The combination of better housing and Fleming’s accidental discovery of antibiotics in 1928 transformed the situation.  The world believed TB was beaten, and medical attention turned to the new spectre of cancer.

But TB was never eradicated, and in the 1980s it flared up on the back of the AIDS epidemic.  TB was declared a Global Health Emergency in 1993.  In the 25 years since, nearly 50 million people have died.  Today TB kills 1.6 million people a year, more people than AIDS and malaria combined, making it the world’s deadliest infectious disease.  Yet until recently, there had been no new medicines for TB treatment approved for over 40 years, and there is no adult vaccine.

The Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the world’s leaders four years ago commit to ending the AIDS, malaria and TB epidemics by 2030.  But at the current rate of progress TB will not be beaten for over a century.

There are three imperatives to act now.  First, humanitarian: it is nothing short of scandalous that 30 million people will die needlessly over the next 15 years.  

Second, economic: the failure to tackle TB will cost the global economy a staggering US$1 trillion over the same period. 

Third, global health security: drug resistant TB is extremely dangerous and, if unchecked, could cause even more catastrophic loss of life and economic harm, including to western countries.

Of course we face many other challenges, but a disease which is killing more than 4,000 people a day should no longer be ignored.  At last the epidemic is receiving the attention it deserves.  

Alexander BlackTB, Aid, NHS