“Instead of stepping up for TB, we are at risk of slipping back due to COVID-19,” said Sharonann Lynch, Senior TB Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. “We cannot stress enough how urgent it is now for governments and donors to intensify their efforts so thatcritical medical innovations and tools reach people with TB. We finally have better drugs and tests to tackle and prevent this extremely infectious yet curable disease, so it’s both mind-boggling and unacceptable that they’re still not being used to save as many lives as possible.”
While reporting on the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on TB services, WHO revealed a sharp drop in the number of people diagnosed. Besides needing to catch up to maintain continuity of existing TB services, it advised countries to adopt and roll out better testing policies and practices.
Presently, countries continue to fall short on rolling out up-to-date testing policies that can assist in reaching nearly 3 million people still being missed.As highlighted in the report, a whopping 85% of countries surveyed still do not use the lifesaving point-of-care urinary TB LAM test for routine diagnosis of TB in people living with HIV, as recommended by WHO.
“As clinicians working on the frontlines of the raging TB epidemic, it is distressing to see the sluggish uptake of TB LAM in national treatment programmes, despite its proven role in saving the lives of people living with HIV,” said Dr Patrick Mangochi, Deputy Medical Coordinator for MSF in Malawi. “Countries must step up the use of TB LAM as a core component of testing services, otherwise delays in diagnosing people with TB and getting them started on treatment will continue to fail people with HIV who get TB.”
TB remains the world’s top infectious disease killer, with more than 10 million people falling ill and 1.4 million people dying due to this disease in 2019. Implementing WHO guidelines is urgently needed to minimise the unnecessary risk of COVID-19 by reducing visits to health facilities, without disrupting treatment. Countries must take immediate action to implement people-centred TB policies, including treatment initiation and follow-up at primary healthcare facilities. Also, national treatment programmes must prioritise the use of all-oral treatment regimens for people with drug-resistant TB (DR-TB) that no longer include older, toxic drugs that have to be injected and cause serious side effects. The report finds that only 22% of countries surveyed allow TB treatment to be started and followed up at a primary healthcare facility, instead of travelling to a hospital, for instance, and for medicines to be taken at home. Additionally, 39% do not use a modified all-oral shorter treatment regimen and 28% of countries surveyed still are using injectable medicines when treating children with DR-TB.
“I have been through an agonising journey of being treated with medicines with excruciating side effects, and lost one of my lungs," said Meera Yadav, a survivor of extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) in Mumbai, India.“Finally, in 2016, I was able to access newer TB drugs as part of the regimen that saved my life. I don't want anyone else to have to go through this ordeal. With newer medicines, it is now possible to give people all-oral treatment that works to cure them. People with TB can’t be excluded from accessing these innovations anymore, especially when they are afraid to visit treatment centers due to COVID-19.”
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