TB deaths rise for first time since 2005 as pandemic 'unravels years of progress'

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The number of people being newly diagnosed with the disease plummeted by 18 per cent due to “severe disruptions” triggered by Covid-19 - Tom Maguire
The number of people being newly diagnosed with the disease plummeted by 18 per cent due to “severe disruptions” triggered by Covid-19 - Tom Maguire

Tuberculosis deaths have risen for the first time since 2005, according to a stark report that warns the pandemic is on track to “unravel years of progress” against the ancient killer.

In 2020, roughly 1.5 million died from TB across the globe, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual surveillance report. That represents a 5.6 per cent increase compared to 2019, when 1.4m people died from the treatable disease.

The findings, published on Thursday, paint a grim picture of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to TB services being interrupted and resources reallocated.

Alongside the surge in fatalities, the number of people being newly diagnosed with the disease plummeted by 18 per cent - from 7.1m in 2019 to 5.8m in 2020 - due to “severe disruptions” triggered by Covid-19.

Global funding for TB services also fell by $500m between 2019 and 2020, while the number of people accessing preventive treatment decreased by 21 per cent. The WHO also estimates that roughly 4.1m people are thought to be suffering from TB without an official diagnosis - in 2019, that figure was 2.9m.

“This report confirms our fears that the disruption of essential health services due to the pandemic could start to unravel years of progress against tuberculosis,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO.

“This is alarming news that must serve as a global wake-up call to the urgent need for investments and innovation to close the gaps in diagnosis, treatment and care for the millions of people affected by this ancient but preventable and treatable disease.”

The report, the first to detail the surge in TB deaths during the pandemic, comes amid mounting evidence that the focus on Covid-19 has had devastating ramifications for efforts to tackle other infectious killers, including HIV/Aids and malaria.

It warns that, unless urgent action is taken, the outlook will only worsen in 2021 and 2022 - while global targets to reduce TB deaths and incidence now appear “increasingly out of reach”.

“Unfortunately, today’s report confirms what we all feared - that more and more people are dying from TB,” said Dr Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership. “We now see more than 4,100 people dying from TB every single day.

“This is not a prediction; it is a reality. The Covid-19 pandemic combined with low political will and appallingly low levels of funding have reversed hard-fought gains in the fight against this age-old disease,” Dr Ditiu warned.

Dr Finn McQuaid, co-director of the TB Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added that there are still major gaps in available data limiting our understanding of the overall picture.

“It is unclear what the effect of an increase in poverty will be on TB patients, nearly half of whom already faced catastrophic costs due to TB before the pandemic, and whether an increase in undernutrition, lung damage due to Covid-19 and other risk factors globally will increase the vulnerability of many to TB disease.”

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