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Half a million may have died from tuberculosis because of pandemic



Half a million of the world’s poorest people may have died because of disruptions to tuberculosis services during the Covid-19 pandemic, global research has found.

Preliminary World Health Organization (WHO) data from over 80 countries found that 1.4 million fewer – 21% less – people received care for tuberculosis in 2020 than 2019. The countries with the biggest drops in tuberculosis care between 2019 and 2020 were Indonesia (42%), South Africa (41%), Philippines (37%) and India (25%).

The global health body fears that over half a million more people may have died from tuberculosis in 2020 because they were unable to obtain a diagnosis and treatment because of the pandemic. A Nursing in Practice in-depth piece from January looked at how tackling tuberculosis could be forgotten during the pandemic. 

WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the ‘disruption to essential services for people with tuberculosis’ is a ‘tragic’ example of the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on the world’s poorest people, who are at higher risk of tuberculosis.

He added: ‘These sobering data point to the need for countries to make universal health coverage a key priority as they respond to and recover from the pandemic, to ensure access to essential services for tuberculosis and all diseases.’

The WHO also issued guidance today to help countries scale up preventative tuberculosis treatment, particularly among-high-risk populations such as household contacts with tuberculosis patients, people living with HIV and other people with lowered immunity or living in crowded environments.

Dr Ghebreyesus said: ‘The world committed to end tuberculosis by 2030; improving prevention is key to making this happen. Millions of people need to be able to take tuberculosis preventive treatment to stop the onset of disease, avert suffering and save lives.’

The WHO suggested the pandemic has exacerbated the growing number of people who develop tuberculosis without being officially diagnosed, estimated to be three million in 2019.

During the pandemic, some countries such as the UK strengthened infection control, remote advice and support and home-based care. But many people in poorer countries are unable to access the care they need.

Tuberculosis remains the world’s top infectious killer. In 2018, 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis worldwide and 1.5 million people lost their lives to this disease.