UN envoy says ‘stumbling blocks’ must be overcome to stamp out tuberculosis

22 March 2007

A United Nations special envoy today appealed for greater strides to be made in development and medical research to eradicate tuberculosis, which is commonly perceived as a disease of the past but continues to kill 5,000 people daily.

“It is absolutely essential that more knowledge about tuberculosis is given out to the public,” the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Stop Tuberculosis Jorge Sampaio told reporters in New York at the launch of the Global Tuberculosis Control Report by the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

Although a curable disease, tuberculosis “hasn’t disappeared,” and the world faces “scary situations with new strains which are extremely resistant” to drugs, he added.

Mobilizing the public will provide a stimulus to research for new drugs to combat drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis and improve health care networks to deliver these medications.

Mr. Sampaio, the former President of Portugal, also pointed out that the lethal HIV/tuberculosis connection is increasing at a rapid pace. According to the WHO, tuberculosis is a major cause of death among those living with HIV/AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV/AIDS is fuelling the tuberculosis epidemic.

The new WHO report offers a mixed picture on the global tuberculosis situation: while on the one hand the percentage of the world’s population infected with tuberculosis has levelled off, these gains are being offset by obstacles such as HIV, the spread of drug-resistant strains and the absence of adequate funding.

“We are currently seeing both the fruits of global action to control TB and the lethal nature of the disease’s ongoing burden,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a press release on the report.

Dr. Mario Raviglione, WHO’s Director of the Stop TB Department, expressed optimism at today’s report launch that since tuberculosis infection peaked in 2004 and held steady in 2005, there is hope that Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number 6, aimed at slashing diseases, will be met in the case of tuberculosis in advance of the 2015 target date.

However, despite the decline in the incidence of the disease, “elimination of tuberculosis, which is the ultimate target for 2050, may in fact not be reached for centuries in reality,” he said at the press briefing.

He also cited the threat posed by extensively drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis which do not respond to the two most powerful first-line drugs – that occur at especially high rates in the former Soviet Union and China, and called for more research in methods to identify the strains, drugs and vaccines, as well as for strengthened health services.

The report also found that due to the increase in the world’s population, the actual number of cases of tuberculosis continued to rise but at a slower rate than global population growth.

The Global Plan to Stop TB, a part of the Stop TB partnership which is lead by the WHO, calls for $56 billion between 2006 and 2015 to meet targets including increased case detection and treatment success, yet there is a funding gap of $31 billion currently.

Yesterday, Mr. Ban signed the “Call to Stop TB,” also part of the Stop TB partnership which envisions a tuberculosis-free world where the first children born this millennium will see the eradication of the disease in their lifetime.

In advance of World TB Day on 24 March, several events are being held to commemorate the day at UN Headquarters. Today, a ‘World Free of TB’ photography exhibition opened, featuring the work of James Nachtwey.

 

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