Tuberculosis: Debilitating in a COVID-19 world

Burnet Institute

24 March, 2021

Image: Burnet Institute Health Promoter Ethel Pamumum (right) at work in Daru, PNG

Every year on World TB Day, 24 March, the world unites to raise awareness of the devastating health, social, and economic impacts of tuberculosis (TB) and calls for government commitment and funding to address the ongoing global threat.

This year, as we continue to address the COVID-19 pandemic, many parallels with TB have become apparent.

“Both TB and COVID-19 are airborne infections that can be addressed together through an integrated response involving testing, community engagement, contact tracing, infection control and real time surveillance,” Dr Khai Huang, Burnet Institute Infectious Diseases Specialist, said.

“There is in fact an opportunity to strengthen the health system preparedness and response overall.”

TB has killed more people than any other infectious disease in history. Each year, more than 1.5 million people die from TB and another nine million people, many of them children, struggle to overcome the debilitating effects of the disease.

Burnet is committed to working towards the ambitious global target to eliminate TB as a public health threat by 2035 through providing on-the-ground assistance and support, training and building capacity, conducting research to inform policy, and working with partnerships at global and national level to drive an agenda of change.

Over the past 12 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted progress towards TB elimination through disruptions to essential health services, access to treatment, and diversion of resources, which, according to the StopTB Partnership effectively eliminated 12 years of progress in the fight against TB.

Desmond Samson can attest to this impact on his role as a TB Counsellor in Daru, Papua New Guinea.

“With the situation of COVID-19, social distancing is one of the prevention measures,” Mr Samson said.

“Some of the treatments require group activities, and this has been put on hold, which makes it more difficult to support our patients at treatment sites.”

According to the StopTB Partnership, although COVID-19 is currently the most common cause of death from an infectious disease globally, in low- to middle-income countries TB deaths remain far higher than those from COVID-19.

As a result of unprecedented political will and global commitment, COVID-19 infections will likely continue to drop as vaccinations are rolled out, while TB continues to kill approximately 1.5 million people every year, despite being declared a Global Emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1993.

“We must also do more in the Indo-Pacific region with funding for the recovery of TB and essential health services negatively impacted during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Dr Huang.

“This will require an integrated response program to strengthen health systems and will also safeguard against future pandemics.

“It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also a smart investment.”

This World TB Day we are calling on the Australian Government to increase funding for TB research and development, and to support TB projects in the Indo-Pacific region.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Doctor Khai Lin Huang

Infectious Diseases Specialist; Acting Co-Head, Tuberculosis Elimination and Implementation Science; Senior Research Fellow


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