Global leaders gather at UN forum to tackle tuberculosis threat

Global leaders gather at UN forum to tackle tuberculosis threat

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On the eve of a high-level meeting on AIDS, government leaders, health and business officials, heads of United Nations agencies and activists have gathered in New York to confront tuberculosis, the leading cause of death for people living with HIV.

Addressing the first HIV/TB Global Leaders’ Forum, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that TB is one of the top 10 leading causes of death globally, causing more than 4,000 deaths every day. “This is shocking: no one should die of TB, a preventable and curable disease, in this prosperous and technology-rich 21st century,” he said.

TB accounts for an estimated quarter of a million deaths each year among those living with HIV and is the number one cause of death among people living with HIV in Africa.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced that some 3 million people are now receiving life-saving anti-retroviral treatment. However, TB, especially drug-resistant forms of the disease, threatens to hinder this progress.

“There is not nearly enough investment in TB control, or in research into preventing, diagnosing and treating TB in people living with HIV,” Mr. Ban said. “This offers us very few options for treating drug resistance, and little chance of eliminating TB deaths.”

The Forum is being convened by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Stop TB, Jorge Sampaio, who stressed that new tools are needed to tackle the disease. “The diagnostics, the drugs and vaccines available now for TB are old. Nothing new has been produced in the past 37 years,” he told reporters before the meeting.

Partnership is the key, Dr. Sampaio stressed, cautioning that “if in fact there is to be no real progress on HIV/TB, we will be in very difficult circumstances in the future.”

According to UNAIDS, HIV and TB are so closely connected that they are often referred to as co-epidemics or dual epidemics that drive and reinforce one another.

Since HIV weakens the immune system, people living with the virus are up to 50 times more likely to develop TB than those who are HIV negative. Without proper treatment with anti-TB drugs, the majority of people living with HIV die within two to three months of becoming sick with TB.

That is something Winstone Zulu, an HIV and TB activist from Zambia, knows all too well. Mr. Zulu and his four brothers were all HIV positive. In 1990, two of his brothers contracted TB and because they did not have TB drugs in his country, both of them died within a week of each other.

In 1996, his oldest brother died as well from TB, again because there were no TB drugs in the country, as did his fourth brother in 2003. Mr. Zulu, who also had TB in 1996, is alive today because he was able to access TB drugs treatment.

“TB treatment for people living with HIV often means the difference between life and death,” he told journalists. “Because I accessed TB treatment I am still alive.”

Mr. Zulu emphasized that what today’s Forum should focus on is that “while we’re looking for a cure for AIDS, we cannot afford to allow people with HIV and tuberculosis to continue dying.”

The meeting takes place one day before the General Assembly high-level meeting to review the progress achieved to realize the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS and the 2006 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS.

“The timing of the two meetings was intentional because we recognise the link between the two challenges,” Assembly President Srgjan Kerim told the Forum.

“We cannot separate the fight against HIV/AIDS from the fight against TB. Success in one will yield success in the other; conversely the continued spread of TB among people living with AIDS undermines efforts to contain the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” he said.

Today’s Forum, which is co-sponsored by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Stop TB Partnership, is expected to produce a Call for Action to drastically cut the number of deaths associated with HIV/TB.