Last year, tuberculosis (TB) was the second deadliest infectious killer worldwide, behind only COVID-19. For the first time in over a decade, the number of people killed by tuberculosis has grown. This is largely due to fewer people getting tested and treated as resources were diverted to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
The United Nation’s health agency reported that the WHO’s 2021 Global TB report showed that 1.5 million people worldwide died of the bacterial disease last year which is a slight rise from the 1.4 million deaths in 2019. According to the latest projections, the death toll from the disease “could be much higher in 2021 and 2022”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dire for people with tuberculosis. Funding and resources have been reallocated toward tackling the pandemic. Additionally, people have struggled to access healthcare during lockdowns. There was also a drop in the number of people seeking preventative treatment, the report said, from 2.8 million people in 2020, down 21 percent from 2019.
"This report confirms our fears that the disruption of essential health services due to the pandemic could start to unravel years of progress against tuberculosis," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
An infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, TB affects the lungs of an individual and continues to worsen gradually over time. TB spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets in the air. When someone is sick with TB, their cough or sneeze can expel bacteria into the air. Only a few of these germs need to be inhaled by someone else for them to become infected.
About 2 billion people worldwide have latent TB infections. When someone has a latent TB infection it means that they have been infected with the bacteria. However, due to the small amount of bacteria, the body’s immune system is able to keep the infection under control and prevent symptoms and transmission to others. Approximately, 5 to 10 percent of those individuals will develop active TB and display symptoms in their lifetime. Those with compromised immune systems, such as people living with HIV, malnutrition or diabetes, or people who drink alcohol heavily or use tobacco products, have a higher risk of falling ill.
The WHO noted that global investment into TB efforts had dropped and said global efforts to meet targets in reducing the numbers of people affected by the disease “appear increasingly out of reach.” TB is a preventable and curable disease. About 85 percent of people who develop a TB infection can be successfully treated within six months, which also helps to prevent transmission. The first step for treatment and prevention is testing. To find out more about TB testing, please visit our comprehensive blog post.
“Covid-19 Caused Rise in TB Deaths for First Time in a Decade, Gains 'Reversed' | | UN News.” United Nations, United Nations, 14 Oct. 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/10/1103022.
“Global Tuberculosis Report 2021.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/teams/global-tuberculosis-programme/tb-reports/global-tuberculosis-report-2021.
“Tuberculosis Deaths Rise for the First Time in More than a Decade Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news/item/14-10-2021-tuberculosis-deaths-rise-for-the-first-time-in-more-than-a-decade-due-to-the-covid-19-pandemic.