Opinion article |

Mind the Deadly Gaps

Grania Brigden (@TBBrigden) discusses the urgent need to close the gaps in the TB response.

The 45th Union World Conference on Lung Health held in Barcelona last week opened with the Health Ministers of South Africa and India making bold statements and commitments to address and reverse the TB epidemics in their countries. Five other countries also committed to ending TB, resulting in the birth of the Barcelona Declaration on TB.

This political commitment is desperately needed. The recently published WHO Global TB Report 2014 highlighted not only the increasing numbers but also the growing crisis in tackling drug-resistant TB. The reality for those infected with multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) is that they have only a one in eight chance of being identified, correctly diagnosed, started on treatment and cured. This is not acceptable.

Amid the political statements, the Union conference highlighted critical gaps that help explain the continuing increases in direct transmission of drug-resistant TB and the poor outcomes for its treatment. The Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ‘Out of Step’ report, released at the conference, identifies five deadly gaps in the TB response:

1) Poor access to drug-resistance testing;

2) The growing number of people diagnosed with MDR-TB who are left untreated;

3) Continued use of outmoded and costly models of care;

4) Limited access to promising new and repurposed drugs; and

5) Dire funding shortfalls

The themes of the MSF report were echoed in several conference sessions discussing various gaps in the patient-centred care approach that persist despite international experience and guidance supporting these models. For example, a symposium arranged by Management Sciences for Health  highlighted the challenges and gaps in medication and psychosocial counselling. And the #coughUpTheTBMoney campaign led by civil society activists from across the globe highlighted the deadly funding gaps in TB research and development as well as the gaps between newly developed TB drugs being registered and actually being used in patients. Solutions to these gaps were suggested, including novel models for the looming research and development crisis. The community corner gave an opportunity for community driven debates on the appropriate responses, a voice that is often lacking. Debates ranged from the challenges of language we use in TB to discussions around access to new and group 5 drugs.

The strong political commitment to end TB that opened the conference needs to be more than words and acted upon now. The gaps highlighted need to close and fast if we are truly going to turn this epidemic around. There is no lack of potential solutions but a great lack of urgency in the response. As former MDR-TB patient and activist Zolelwa Sifumba says in her blog: “We all play a vital role in this fight and we need to take action … We need to demand action!”

Next year, when the Union Conference moves to Cape Town, we need to see substantial progress in closing the gaps, with no excuses allowed – we need to see that action has been taken and the gaps have been closed.

This article was originally published on PLOS BLOGS.

How is it possible...

...that we sent people to the moon almost 50 years ago, yet millions of people with tuberculosis are still treated with old, inadequate medicines?