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WHO: Despite Record-Low Infections, TB Funding a Concern

  • Vidushi Sinha

TB patient covers her face at clinic near Cape Town, South Africa, March 24, 2011 (file photo).

TB patient covers her face at clinic near Cape Town, South Africa, March 24, 2011 (file photo).

The World Health Organization says the number of people worldwide getting tuberculosis declined last year for the first time, but experts warn this progress could be undone by cuts in funding, especially amid global economic turmoil.

W.H.O. statistics published Tuesday show the number of people who became sick with the disease dropped to 8.8 million in 2010. The number of people who died last year from TB fell to 1.4 million.

The report says every region of the world except Africa appears to be on track for a fifty percent decline in tuberculosis deaths by 2015.

Brazil and China have made especially dramatic progress over the past two decades. In China, the report says, TB deaths fell by 80 percent.

W.H.O.'s Director-General Margaret Chan says strong leadership in many countries, coupled with domestic financing and foreign donor support, has begun to make a difference in the fight against tuberculosis.

Calls for increased funding
Dr. Mario Raviglione, Director of the W.H.O.'s Stop TB Department, says the report shouldn't ease concerns about the disease.

"I am concerned that the momentum that has been created by these achievements may actually be lost," he said. "So that’s why we are calling for an increase in the intensity of tuberculosis control and research."

"Tuberculosis is still a huge global problem," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "It’s a problem both from control with the tools that we have -- and the problem is, that we don’t have many of the sophisticated tools that we have for other diseases such as HIV/AIDS."

With new rapid diagnostic tools, drugs and vaccines beginning to show promise, experts say there can be no let-up in the worldwide campaigns to check the disease, a sentiment echoed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement warning against complacency.

"Too many millions still develop TB each year, and too many die," he said. "I urge serious and sustained support for TB prevention and care, especially for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people."

The W.H.O. says about a third of the world's population is infected with TB bacteria, but only a relatively small percentage develops the disease. TB bacteria destroy lung tissue and can spread through the air when people cough.

The agency says that overall the death rate from TB has dropped 40 percent since 1990.