Global leaders convened Monday in what is being billed as the first-ever forum to discuss the dual epidemics of TB and HIV. The high level discussions come ahead of a two-day meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on HIV/AIDS. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

Experts say the worldwide tuberculosis epidemic is a threat to HIV infected people even despite the existence of drugs that allow them to live AIDS-free.

Kevin De Cock, Director of the World Health Organization's Program on HIV / AIDS, says TB is the most serious so-called opportunistic infection that threatens people living with HIV. "It's the cause of death of about one-third of patients dying of AIDS in low and middle income countries; that we estimate is at least 700,000 new cases annually of HIV-associated TB, although I suspect that is actually an underestimate."

An estimated three million people worldwide are now taking antiretroviral drugs. Even on HIV therapy, experts say patients are still vulnerable to TB infection.

Officials are also concerned about the growing menace of drug resistant forms of tuberculosis. They put the number of new cases of hard-to-treat tuberculosis at 40,000 each year.

Mario Raviglione is head of the WHO's Stop TB Program. Raviglione says it's important to coordinate efforts within countries to diagnose and treat people with HIV and TB. "Here we are dealing with one life, one single individual that has two diseases and for whom there is a need for one response that is well-coordinated," he said.

Participating in the discussions on the complex and destructive nature of TB and its effect on HIV eradication efforts were the UN Secretary General and several heads of state.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the UN General Assembly will hold formal talks assessing progress toward eliminating HIV/AIDS and conclude the debate with a call to action.