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World needs to fight tuberculosis harder

October 13, 2016

The World Health Organization's yearly TB report is not exactly bursting with good news. Too many people still die of the curable disease and countries aren't spending enough money to fight it.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Klett/A. Jung

On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) presented its annual tuberculosis report in Washington DC. The main message: the world isn't doing enough to stop the dangerous infectious disease.

"Countries need to move much faster to prevent, detect and treat the disease if they are to meet global targets," it says in the organization's 2016 Global Tuberculosis Report.

Working toward the eradication of tuberculosis (TB) is one of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Countries pledged that by 2030, they'd reduce TB deaths by 90 percent and TB cases by 80 percent compared to 2015.

"We face an uphill battle to reach the global targets for tuberculosis," said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General. "There must be a massive scale-up of efforts, or countries will continue to run behind this deadly epidemic and these ambitious goals will be missed."

Preventable deaths

TB is an airborne disease. When people with lung TB cough, sneeze or spit, they propel germs into the air. A healthy person needs to inhale only a few of these germs to become infected.

According to the WHO, between 1.5 million and 2 million people die from the disease every year. In 2015, there were an estimated 1.8 million TB deaths worldwide. The disease killed more people than HIV and malaria.

Infografik TBC Neuerkrankungen pro 100.000 Einwohner Englisch

There are large differences between developed and developing countries when it comes to dealing with tuberculosis. In 2015, six countries accounted for 60 percent of all new TB cases. India tops the list, followed by Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa.

TB doesn't have to be lethal - it can be cured with the right medication. But in countries with large unregulated private sectors and where few people have access to health care, many cases are never diagnosed. That's not just a tragedy for those already infected - when sick people don't take TB medication, they can also spread the disease to family members and everyone in their general vicinity.

Financing the fight

The current report also stresses that funding for the fight against TB falls short by a wide margin. In low and middle income countries, preventing and treating the disease would cost 8.3 billion dollars in 2016 - that's two billion dollars more than what was actually raised.

If funding levels remain at their current state, the gap will widen  to 6 billion dollars by 2020. The WHO estimates that at least 1 billion extra dollars are needed per year to accelerate the development of new vaccines, diagnostics and drugs.