The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that TB should not be neglected since the disease claims 1.5 million lives each year.

International health bodies have warned against shifting TB resources to combat COVID-19, and there is growing fear that health systems are shifting focus from other deadly diseases to just COVID-19 thus exposing millions of people to risk of severe illness and even death.

Director General of the World Health Organisation Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, says, “Although COVID-19 is dominating currently, commitment to end the suffering and death caused by the ancient disease TB, should not be neglected now.”

He says, “The world is rightly responding to COVID-19 with urgency and purpose. We call on the global community to harness that same urgency and purpose for the fight against tuberculosis.”

Director of TB in the International Union Against TB and Lung Disease Dr Grania Brigden also warns that if resources are diverted away from TB programmes in order to fight COVID-19, there will be devastating consequences for 400 000 children and adolescents in Africa who need TB and multidrug-resistant TB care each year.

Brigden says, “A lot of countries in Africa have high burdens of TB and as such it’s really important that people with TB continue to have their treatment as well as continue to find those who may have TB but who don’t know about it yet. Additionally with the fact that TB affects the lungs, we also want to make sure that we protect people with TB and people at risk from TB from also getting coinfection with COVID-19.”

Professor Geoffrey Setswe from the Aurum Institute says COVID-19 is a new kid on the block but there’s already been fast adoption of national policies and investments towards it. He says while it’s not a competition but TB deserves the same attention as COVID-19.

Setswe says, “Both COVID-19 and TB are overloading the health care systems including our national health system. They need rapid diagnosis and public awareness and also lead to social stigma. There is also a lack of knowledge on individuals’ susceptibility to both diseases. But the differences are that TB lacks investments for national surveillance systems for over many years and lacks consistent national policies.”

Head of CAPRISA Treatment Research Programme Professor Kogie Naidoo says with TB being such an old disease, people have options for prevention while there’s minimal options with COVID-19.

Naidoo says, “The global shutdown is justified given that this virus spreads so efficiently through physical contact. I fully agree with the strategies that have been undertaken to limit the spread of corona. It gives people that are sick with more severe disease a better chance at getting better healthcare to access resources to help them fight the infection.”

It is estimated that one million children fall ill with TB every year and one-quarter of all people with TB disease in the world live in Africa, thousands more are not aware they have it.

HIV, TB and COVID-19 screening should be integrated

The South African AIDS Council (Sanac) wants  HIV and TB screening to be incorporated into the testing and screening for COVID-19.

Sanac says it does not want to see a reversal of progress made in the country’s HIV and TB response due to the emergence of the coronavirus.

Community organisation People Living with HIV says it is concerned that health officials have shifted their focus entirely to COVID-19, resulting in other diseases being neglected.

It says this has led to a shortage of antiretrovirals and other essential services, especially in the North West.

People Living with HIV’s Sello Mkhaliphi says, “There’s a massive shortage of medication specifically around Rustenburg. We are afraid that this might grow to other provinces. Second one there’s fear instilled to people living with HIV where we see some of them not going to collect their medicine because of not having permits to be on the streets, the fear is instilled by videos they see on social media on a daily basis.”