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Global Health Experts Devise Plan to Fight African TB Surge

Public health officials from all over the world met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Tuesday and Wednesday to focus on what to do about a surge of tuberculosis in Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the problem has reached alarming proportions. The public health experts represent a five-year-old international coalition to stop the disease. As VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington, the group has developed a strategy to intensify action against African TB.

The WHO says TB rates have tripled since 1990 in 21 African countries. This is a contrast to other parts of the world, where WHO numbers show that TB has dropped or at least remained stable. The driving force behind Africa's soaring TB epidemic is another epidemic, HIV, which weakens the body's immune system to make it more susceptible to other infections.

In 2000, the United Nations set a so-called Millennium Development Goal of reversing the increase in major diseases by 2015. But the head of the WHO's Stop TB department, Mario Raviglione, says Africa's plight could stymie the global tuberculosis target.

"That's why we're now putting emphasis on Africa, because without Africa strengthening their health system, being able to do TB control properly, we will not achieve the Millennium Development Goal,” he said. “The incidence would probably keep going up. It's offsetting what the rest of the world is achieving."

As a result, Dr. Raviglione and public health experts from several other international agencies, governments, non-governmental organizations, and foundations met in Addis Ababa to devise a plan to halt Africa's spiraling TB epidemic. The participants represent the coordinating committee of the global Stop TB partnership.

"We know that with the present status quo, we will not reach the targets in Africa unless some special interventions are actually put in place. That's obvious. So the special effort is necessary," he added.

The coordinating committee meeting in Addis Ababa agreed to boost the disease's visibility among African regional health and development programs, launch a Stop TB Partnership for Africa, and organize a TB financing summit to seek increased funding from donor agencies and countries.

It also urged African governments to take tuberculosis more seriously and make its control a main part of their development agendas. Speaking in Geneva before the Addis Ababa meeting, Dr. Raviglione said health has not been a high priority with many African governments.

"They are the ones responsible. For instance, in the case of Africa and TB, if leaders in Africa don't take TB seriously, then forget it,” he said. “The governments put the money in weapons, for instance, or in their army and they don't allocate what they should allocate, which has been calculated as a small percentage of their GDP and so on. [It] should actually be allocated to health and they simply don't do it."

To increase awareness of tuberculosis among African governments, the Stop TB Partnership will send high-level delegations to several of the most affected countries to meet with heads of state and ministers of health, finance, and planning.

The experts want governments to strengthen TB treatment using World Health Organization guidelines, which call for health care workers to observe patients taking drugs for six months to ensure compliance. The committee also seeks to increase the involvement of African non-governmental groups and the private sector, and enhance local TB drug procurement and manufacturing.