Geneva | The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo the progress of recent years in the fight against tuberculosis, until then the main infectious killer, the WHO warned on Wednesday.
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Engaged in the fight against the new coronavirus, the countries most affected by tuberculosis have failed to diagnose it, reveals the annual report of the World Health Organization, which estimates that the lung disease could make this year between 200,000 and 400,000 more deaths than the 1.4 million in 2019, despite the existence of a cure.
An increase of 200,000 deaths would send the world back to 2015, an increase of 400,000 to 2012. And this while the progress made in the fight against tuberculosis was already considered too slow even before the coronavirus pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undermine the progress made in recent years. The impact of the pandemic on tuberculosis control services has been severe, ”summarizes WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the report.
Data collected by WHO in the most affected countries show “a sharp drop in the notification of tuberculosis cases in 2020”, he laments.
In India, the most affected country, weekly and monthly notifications fell by more than 50% from the end of March to the end of April following the imposition of containment, the report points out. A trend similar to that recorded in South Africa between March and June.
“With COVID-19 having rolled back TB testing, governments need to develop a catch-up plan. The time for apologies is over, ”said Sharonann Lynch of MSF.
In addition to confinement, which complicates patients’ access to healthcare centers, the negative impacts of the pandemic on essential tuberculosis control services are numerous, with COVID-19 vampirizing healthcare staff and financial and technical resources.
Already in early May, the WHO Stop TB department estimated that three months of confinement could lead to 6 million new infections and 1.4 million additional deaths from tuberculosis between 2020 and 2025.
The end of a dream?
Tuberculosis is a disease caused by the tubercle bacillus, which most often affects the lungs. It is transmitted during the expectoration of droplets of bronchial secretions by affected people.
In a healthy person, the infection is often asymptomatic because the immune system “traps” the bacillus, explains the WHO. When it starts, pulmonary tuberculosis is manifested by a cough, sometimes tinged with blood, chest pain, weight loss and night sweats.
Tuberculosis can be treated by taking antibiotics for several months, and the WHO estimates that the diagnosis and treatment saved 58 million people between 2000 and 2018.
But the disease remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, due in part to the fact that symptoms can remain mild for many months.
While tuberculosis is rife worldwide, more than 95% of cases and deaths occur in developing countries.
In 2019, 44% of cases were reported in Southeast Asia, 25% in Africa, 18% in the Western Pacific and 8.2% in countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. But eight countries totaled two-thirds of the new cases: India, Indonesia, China, Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa.
Only 78 countries were in a good position – before the pandemic – to meet the targets set for 2020.
The disease, which is as old as humanity, was contracted by an additional 10 million people in 2019, a number that has declined slightly in recent years, the report notes.
Last year, around 1.4 million died of it (including 208,000 HIV carriers), figures which again declined, but “not fast enough” to reach the milestones set at the end of 2020 in the strategy to end tuberculosis by 2030, notes the WHO.