March 24th was World TB Day, and I thought it appropriate to discuss long-time pandemics, such as tuberculosis, as well as the current COVID pandemic.
Let’s begin with the current COVID-19 pandemic. For much of the past 12+ months, our advocacy has focused on securing $17 billion for global vaccine equity. We and our partner organizations have worked very hard at this, but sadly Congress failed us when they did not provide ANY COVID emergency funding in the recently-passed omnibus spending legislation for fiscal year 2022. Due to disagreements regarding unspent funds on the domestic COVID front, Congress failed to provide any global vaccine support. However, there is no unspent money for global vaccines. As of now, we hope that the Senate will approve emergency funding at $5 billion for global vaccines—-the amount that President Biden had requested, knowing full well that this was an inadequate sum. Stay tuned.
As has been said many times before, until the world is vaccinated against COVID-19, none of us are safe. And the longer we experience vaccine inequity — vaccine apartheid — the greater the risk of viral mutation leading to a more severe variant or one that evades the protection from our current vaccines.
So let’s go back to the story of tuberculosis. TB is a pandemic that has been with us for hundreds of years; it used to be called consumption. The last and only vaccine was developed 100 years ago, and it’s not very effective. COVID showed us that we have the ability to create new and effective vaccines for many diseases, but we don’t have the political will to spend those resources on pandemics that do not impact wealthier countries in the same way they do low-income countries. We are seeing a similar pattern evolve for COVID-19.
On World TB Day, we asked that our government provide additional funds for TB research, testing, and treatment as well as for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. We must support the Global Fund to make up for lost time as many of its resources have been repurposed to address COVID-19.
Pre-COVID we were seeing heartening trends in addressing TB. The 2020 Global Tuberculosis Report stated that 1.4 million more people got care for tuberculosis between 2015 and 2019, and the world was working toward the ambitious but achievable goal of ending the TB epidemic by 2030. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered disastrous healthcare disruptions, including care for tuberculosis patients. The results have been devastating and will continue to be so unless we act. The Stop TB Partnership suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic could contribute to 6.3 million additional cases of TB and a doubling of TB deaths over the next three years.
Women are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and unable to access adequate diagnosis and treatment for TB. And TB is the leading cause of infertility worldwide as well as leading to increased maternal deaths. Women and children account for 44% of cases of tuberculosis. According to the Treatment Action Group, “TB is one of the top three causes of death among women ages 15–45, killing half a million women worldwide each year. TB causes between 6% and 15% of all maternal deaths.”
So, tuberculosis is clearly a women’s issue, along with HIV/AIDS. Let’s continue to support the work of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. We have an excellent opportunity to do that over the coming months as we push the US to exert bold leadership when it hosts the Global Fund replenishment conference later this year.
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If you would like to learn more about tuberculosis and the impact of COVID-19, l encourage you to watch this sobering presentation from the most recent RESULTS Global Poverty Policy Forum with Dr. Madhukar Pai from McGill University. You can also read more from Dr. Pai here.