More than a third of the planet's population is infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis - the disease known as TB. In many of them, the bacteria will remain dormant. But people living with HIV are much more likely to develop active TB because of their weakened immune systems. Experts at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna say political will and proper funding are the only obstacles to reducing the number of these deaths.
Tuberculosis is an airborne disease that is most commonly transmitted in overcrowded areas. Each year, there are more than nine million new cases worldwide, the vast majority in densely populated, developing countries such as India, China, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
There is no vaccine for the most common strain of TB, but the disease is treatable and curable. However, in people with HIV, it has become the leading cause of death.
At the international AIDS conference, the Stop TB Partnership and UNAIDS have announced an agreement to work together to address the two diseases with a unified strategy. Dr. Marcos Espinal is the executive secretary of the Stop TB Partnership.
"The co-infection of TB-HIV - it is something that goes hands-by-hands," Espinal said."It is not something that is going to go away, unless we implement the necessary measures to address these two epidemics together -- in other words, integrating TB-HIV services, because what we need to make sure [of, is that] the people in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia have access to both type of services in the same health center."
People with HIV are 20 to 30 times more likely to develop tuberculosis than those without HIV. Once they have it, it can kill them rapidly, within a few months. Experts say a quarter of all HIV-related deaths are from tuberculosis. The new initiative aims to cut that rate in half by 2015 to a quarter of a million deaths. About $5 billion a year is needed to reach that goal. UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Dr. Paul De Lay says the goal is achievable.
"We have the technologies, we know how to treat now. In the past, when a person had both TB and HIV, we separated the treatments," De Lay said. "Now, we aggressively treat both illnesses at the same time. We have a much better success rate. We have better drugs now. So, we can now combine them; they don't interfere with each other. And, so, we do have the technology. Financially, it is not an astronomical amount of money. So, this is doable, and it is doable in the next 4 to 5 years."
But Dr. Espinal of the Stop TB Partnership emphasizes that tuberculosis and HIV are not just health issues. He says they have social, economic and human rights implications that require political will to be reduced and eventually eradicated.
"We need to ensure these people who make decisions, who decide on funding, who decide on political commitment, get the message clear," Espinal said. "Otherwise, we will not be doing our job for those people affected by both diseases."
Experts here say if the global plan to Stop TB is fully funded and implemented, millions of lives will be saved and millions more people will receive needed treatment.