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WHO Rolls Out New Strategy to Wipe Out TB

FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

As countries mark World TB Day on March 24, the World Health Organization (WHO) is rolling out a new strategy to end the global tuberculosis epidemic, calling for worldwide support to wipe out the disease over the next 20 years.

Two previous strategies have cleared the way for this latest and most ambitious plan. WHO is convinced its current strategy, called End TB, has a good chance of working because of the success of the DOT TB treatment and the Stop TB strategies that were rolled out earlier this century.

Tremendous progress has been made in the fight against TB in recent years. Between 2000 and 2013, an estimated 37 million lives have been saved through TB diagnosis and treatment. But the World Health Organization says much more needs to be done to combat this deadly disease.

Director of the WHO Global TB Program Mario Raviglione said the End TB strategy represents a historic opportunity to wipe out an epidemic that has been the cause of death, illness and suffering for millennia.

“Let us remember that TB affected nine million people in 2013, killed 1.5 million people, including 360,000 people living with HIV and also half a million multi-drug resistant TB cases emerged in the same year, causing, of course, alarm and concern everywhere in the world as these are difficult cases to manage and have a very high case fatality… rate,” said Raviglione.

Tuberculosis is a contagious, airborne disease. It is the second leading cause of death from a single infectious agent, after HIV. More than 95 percent of cases and deaths are in developing countries.

Tuberculosis is curable and preventable, and WHO is counting on this fact to push forward its ambitious new strategy, which calls for a 95 percent reduction in TB deaths and a 90 percent reduction in cases of TB by 2035.

A key milestone to be reached in the next five years is the elimination of catastrophic costs for TB patients and their families. Tuberculosis can bankrupt families due to the direct medical costs and the loss of income linked to the six-month period of treatment.

WHO says medical costs and loss of income can be offset through the establishment of various financial protection schemes, including universal health coverage.

The strategy calls for bold policies by governments to support TB programs and emphasizes the need for new tools, intensified research and innovation. Raviglione told VOA there is movement in this direction, with new diagnostics and drugs coming down the pipeline.

“We need rapid, molecular possibly and genetic based drug susceptibility testing. That is what we are after… something that is simple and can be done at the most peripheral place as quickly as possible and we are not far from that technology to possibly become true,” he said.

WHO reports the global cure rate for multi-drug resistant TB is 48 percent, compared to an 86 percent cure rate for normal TB. Raviglione said two new drugs have been approved, which have the potential to increase the cure rate for both multi-drug and extensively drug-resistant TB. But, he noted, problems of access and availability of these drugs still must be worked out.